Ian Whitaker / Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014 | 8:15 p.m.
The traffic light was installed too late to save Helen Liu.
The 14-year-old was crossing Blue Diamond Road with a group of friends one night last year when they were hit by a truck. Liu was killed. In the aftermath, residents demanded something be done in public meetings with the Nevada Department of Transportation.
Today, around nine months since Liu’s fatal accident, state leaders cut the ribbon on a new traffic light and crosswalk at Blue Diamond and Cimarron Road. Built days ahead of schedule at around $1.2 million, the signal was celebrated as a victory.
“[The process] was much quicker than we expected,” said state Sen. Justin Jones, who represents the area. He, along with County Commissioner Susan Brager, Assemblyman James Healey and even Gov. Brian Sandoval, helped fast-track the planning process to avoid the red tape.
“This has been a very dangerous intersection and unfortunately a very tragic intersection,” Healey told a press conference gathering just a few feet away from the roadside pile of dusty candles and stuffed animals that marks Liu’s memorial.
The seven-mile urban stretch of Blue Diamond — often dimly lit at night with stops few and far between — bisects several residential communities before it peters out into desert on its way to outlying communities and Pahrump.
In the four months Wes Nazareth, 24, has lived at Mountain’s Edge, he says he’s seen four accidents just outside the 7-Eleven where he works. It’s the same 7-Eleven police say Liu and her friends were crossing the street to get to before going to a friend's house. They had come from a neighborhood south of the road, the small strip mall being one of the few places within walking distance to buy a quick snack.
“It’s ridiculous is what it is,” Nazareth said. “It took a little girl dying for them to say, ‘Oh, we need to put a light up.’”
He said residents he’s talked to are glad the light is up, but felt it should have been done sooner.
On Wednesday, when the traffic signal actually became operational, an accident occurred right in front of road workers and contractors. A Toyota truck collided with a Toyota sedan around 5:35 p.m., and the occupants suffered minor injuries, according to Nevada Highway Patrol. A day later, the shattered glass still lay gleaming in the middle of the intersection.
“It’s dangerous, it’s very dangerous,” said Karen Freeman, a local resident and campaigner for Healey. “I’ve been here five years and it’s always been bad.”
According to the statistics, it’s not just bad, it’s an epidemic. Sixty pedestrians were killed in accidents in 2013, making Las Vegas a deadlier place for streetside strollers than even Manhattan, Los Angeles or Dallas.
Officials say they see the problem, but are often forced to play catch-up in the face of rapid population growth.
NHP Trooper Loy Hixson, who spoke at the press conference, said housing developers work at a lightning-fast pace while public agencies are limited by federal and state regulations which take time.
“We do things based on public safety,” he said. “We don’t know the impact or it it’s necessary financially and fiscally … until all that’s done.”
If a traffic signal is installed in a neighborhood that is later abandoned by residents, Hixson said the money is wasted and it simply becomes a “dead intersection.” And money is something NDOT Director Rudy Malfabon said the agency is struggling with.
“We don’t like it when we have to say money is an issue,” Brager said. “We want to stay proactive and not reactive.”
For now, state agencies and law enforcement have resorted to urging pedestrians and motorists to take responsibility for their own safety. They urge drivers to slow down and for passengers to wear their seatbelts. Pedestrians, they say, must use crosswalks.
But when Liu died on Nov. 9, 2013, there was no crosswalk at Blue Diamond and Cimarron. There’s a cross on the side of the road to prove it.