By ALLIE HOSTLER, Two Rivers Tribune
Amber Brock, a mother of seven, lays paralyzed from the neck down in a Redding hospital bed. Fully aware of her surroundings, yet still unable to speak, she blinks her eyes to communicate with her family and visitors. She was hit by a Ford Bronco while crossing Highway 96 in downtown Hoopa on October 29.
A daughter still seeks closure to her father Cedric Hostler’s untimely death after he was struck and killed by a vehicle at the north end of Hoopa on Mother’s day of this year.
A mother still mourns her 21-year-old son Alejandro “Alex” Garcia after he was hit and killed on Highway 299 in Willow Creek on June 21, 2014. The assailant was later arrested for hit and run, manslaughter, driving under the influence and obstructing an officer.
In 2014 alone, at least five hit and run collisions involving pedestrians have been documented in Hoopa and Willow Creek alone. Two of which were fatal. The three others suffered moderate to major injuries.
A 2013 University of California, Berkeley study titled Deadly Roads: An Analysis of Traffic Safety in or Near Indian Country in Humboldt County, churned up shocking data that documents higher than average rates of severe traffic collisions in or near tribal lands within Humboldt County.
Hoopa, Karuk and Yurok lands amount to less than 25 percent of Humboldt County’s total land mass, but these areas were the site of 33 percent of all traffic related fatalities in 2009, and over 50 percent of the county’s fatalities in 2008.
The numbers are even more alarming when one considers that much of the Hoopa, Karuk and Yurok lands are rural where there is less traffic and a lower population.
California Highway Patrol Officer, Matt Harvey is based out of CHP’s Arcata office. Without reliable data, Harvey was hesitant to confirm a disproportionate problem on Highways 96 and 299.
“I don’t know that there is a big trend one way or the other,” Harvey said. “It does seem like lately we’ve had some major incidents involving fatalities, especially in the past six to eight months in the Willow Creek and Hoopa area.”
He provided statistics spanning 2010 to present that show the number of hit and runs on Highway 96 spanning from Willow Creek to Weitchpec jumped from one per year in 2010 and 2011, to three in 2012; four in 2013; and three in 2014. At least two additional hit and runs involving pedestrians were not included in CHP statistics because they were handled by a different law enforcement agency.
For example, Hoopa Valley Police Chief, Robert Kane confirmed that on Halloween day of this year a pedestrian was struck by a vehicle in the Ray’s Food Place parking lot in Hoopa. A Tribal police officer responded to the call and arrested William Lowden for felony hit and run and assault with a deadly weapon. A report was filed with the District Attorney’s Office. The DA’s office told the Two Rivers Tribune that charges are pending review of the report.
Because various roadways are managed and policed by different agencies, CHP was not aware of the incident, so it was not included in the most recent data summary provided by Harvey. The same is true of an additional hit and run incident in Hoopa on Highway 96 in September of this year where the victim suffered moderate injuries.
According to Deadly Roads, researchers point out systemic underreporting of traffic collisions on tribal lands and lack of tribal-level data about traffic collisions.
“Other barriers to reporting include insufficient tribal law enforcement capacity, lack of standardization in reporting methods, lack of access to software and technical support required to add data to statewide databases, and strained tribal-state relations,” the study reads.
On a broader scale, Native Americans continue to face a higher risk of traffic-related injuries and fatalities. In California alone, between 2004 and 2009, while the overall number of fatal collisions decreased by almost 27 percent, fatal collisions involving Native Americans increased by 30 percent.
Although hardly scientific, on Monday, November 24, the Two Rivers Tribune observed pedestrian traffic at 2 pm in downtown Hoopa. Within five minutes 10 pedestrians were counted within a 200-foot radius of the Hoopa Mini-Mart, half of whom crossed the highway without using either of the two crosswalks. One pedestrian was observed using the crosswalk.
“Jaywalking is a ticketable offense,” Harvey said. “But we don’t typically issue a lot of jaywalking tickets. That would be a whole lot of tickets. Perhaps there will be a time when we would need to crack down on that. We want to hear the voice of the community. If that is something the community says they want, we might consider it after public notice is given.”
“If you have a crosswalk, use it, or walk to the nearest intersection. People oftentimes drive through rural areas too fast. Be sure to cross safely and try to avoid walking on the street at nighttime,” Harvey said. “Several accidents occur when pedestrians are walking at night or in the early hours of the morning when it’s dark. If you need to be walking, consider wearing reflective clothing or use a flashlight or a headlamp. Don’t assume other vehicles see you.”
Eli Rhol, a public information officer for Cal Trans District 1 based out of Eureka, said several safety projects are in the works in the Hoopa and Weitchpec areas of Highway 96.
In 2015 Cal Trans plans to install radar feedback signs to help alert drivers of their speed. They also plan to install lit pedestrian beacons at existing crosswalks to improve visibility.
“In some cases we have a safety project we would like to do, but we’re not able to until it becomes evident, through collision data, that there’s a safety concern,” Rhol said. “If it’s found that there’s an issue that can be corrected or offset by a safety project, traffic safety funding becomes available on an emergency basis. There could be projects that now qualify for traffic safety funding.”
The Hoopa Valley Tribe’s Transportation Planner, Michael Hostler, said the tribe has been working with Cal Trans since 2003 on projects to calm traffic and improve roadway safety in downtown Hoopa.
In 2005 the Hoopa Tribe completed a traffic and safety calming plan and in 2012 the tribe received a small grant to conduct a safety audit. The safety audit is currently in draft form, but is expected to be finalized by March of 2015. More recently, the tribe applied for a larger grant to complete an intersection project near Jackson’s Trailer Park and the Hoopa Shopping Center in Downtown Hoopa. Although funding has not yet been confirmed, the tribe is hopeful that the project will commence within the next two years.
The Tribe’s Downtown Enhancement Project is a product of years of planning and consultation with the community. That project includes several safety and beautification features, but is not yet fully funded. Phases of the project are outlined and funding sources are currently being identified.
In the meantime, tribal representatives from the Hoopa, Yurok and Karuk Tribes are working closely on the Humboldt County Association of Governments (HCAOG) Technical Advisory Committee to help improve roadway safety on tribal lands.
Executive Director of HCAOG, Marcella Clem said the HCAOG Board of Directors was considering approving a contract with CHP to increase patrols on Highways 96 and 36 due to increased traffic problems on those specific highways and a lack of call boxes and limited cell phone service.
Overall, it appears safety improvements are in the works but, actual on-the-ground projects aren’t expected to begin for another one to two years.
According to Deadly Roads, when compared to all other ethnic groups, Native Americans fare significantly worse across traffic safety outcomes and incidence of motor vehicle fatalities. Yet, in spite of this disparity, fewer traffic safety efforts specifically target Native Americans.
Meanwhile, Amber Brock’s family is calling for prayers and hoping for a medical miracle.
CHP has no suspects in the hit and run collision that claimed Cedric Hostler’s life. His daughter, Joy Hostler said, “We would like whoever is responsible to come forward so we, the family, can have closure.”