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WeHo enlists Taylor Swift song, humor in campaign to stem fatal pedestrian crashes

This fall, West Hollywood launched a million-dollar pedestrian safety campaign in response to this sobering statistic: Compared to the entire population of Los Angeles, pedestrians are hit almost three times more often in “WeHo” than anywhere else in L.A. 

The city's initiative was created in West Hollywood’s cheeky style.

The theme was Alice in WeHoland, and the first installment was a music video spoofing Taylor Swift's song, "Shake It Off," with singer Todrick Hall and drag queen Willam Belli (of "RuPaul's Drag Race" fame.)

The campaign is designed to prevent accidents such as the one on May 4, 2013, in which Mehmet Tasci was hit by a car while in the crosswalk at Santa Monica Boulevard and Hancock Avenue.

This corner haunts Tasci's partner, David Etter, because Etter passes this spot on his commute every day.

"Everything I look at reminds me of him, especially being here," he said one afternoon, "It's killing me inside, especially with the paramedic right next to me, and a bus pulling up that he was supposed to catch and come home to me."

West Hollywood has just 1 percent of the Los Angeles region's population, but pedestrian accidents occur 285 percent more frequently there.

This month, the city also commissioned a series of 3D street drawings up and down hot spots along Santa Monica Boulevard.

It's a creative way to encourage folks to stay on the crosswalk: You can only see the image in 3D standing right above it.  

The city hoped by creating these quirky projects, they would go viral and find a bigger audience.

"It's meant to be silly. It's attention grabbing," said Henry Scott, publisher of the hyperlocal blog WEHOville. "If you do not have a sense of humor, you should not live in West Hollywood."

Critics not amused

Not everyone is laughing.

Ben Coleman lives in West Hollywood, and he wants the message to have more gravitas: "I really want them to scare people.”

Coleman is the founder of Keep WeHo Safe and one of several public safety advocates in the city who wants a campaign that gets serious – pointing out that carelessness can kill you.

Etter takes that message to heart, having not only lost Tasci, but also another friend – Clint Bounds – to a car accident in 2014. These incidents sparked him and others to action, demanding city hall do something.

But Etter scoffs at the city's ad campaign, one of which has the tag line, "Wink, Then Walk."

"They’re telling me that Mehmet should’ve winked to the driver?" he asks. "You’re asking someone to flirt, basically. I think it’s offensive to people who’ve lost a partner like myself."

West Hollywood Mayor, John D'Amico takes all these criticisms seriously.

"We can’t always get everything right for everyone," he admits, but says in today’s world, where people are often distracted – clever marketing reaches people. 

And the fact is – something’s working

It will take months and years to get an accurate picture, but early results show that pedestrian-car collisions are down in West Hollywood.

Lt. David Smith from the West Hollywood division of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department said that, between October and December of 2014, there were just nine such incidents. This compared with 16 in 2011 and 21 in 2012.

But Etter wants to see less spent on campaigns and more on actual changes to the street.

D'Amico counters that most of the budget – 80 percent – is being spent on things that don't get likes or retweets: infrastructure so drivers can see pedestrians more easily.

Motorists are to blame for more than two-thirds of pedestrian-car accidents. But D'Amico said most drivers going through West Hollywood are just passing through, so it's harder to reach them. Besides, erecting a billboard would only distract eyes that should be on the road.

Future changes may include eliminating mid-block crosswalks in favor of new ones paired with traffic signals.

In January, the city installed bright yellow signs in between lanes to warn drivers to yield to pedestrians. But community activists disagree on the signs' effectiveness – some say they literally get knocked over by passing cars every day and need to be repaired each morning and are thus a wasted expense. Others argue they force drivers to slow down because they make the lanes narrow, and that this is a good improvement – better the signs be hit than people.

D'Amico said the city is more than willing to test out new ways to solve its accident problems.

Broader Lens

What happens in West Hollywood could be a lesson for the rest of Southern California, as more people give up on trying to beat traffic and pick a different way to get where they’re going safely.

And perhaps that’s another lesson – something D’Amico pointed out about the city’s philosophy approaching the problem: "We're small, we're nimble," he said, "and when concerns and causes are raised, we can respond quickly and smartly."

This story is part of Transportation Nation, a public radio reporting project that combines the work of multiple newsrooms to provide coverage of how we build, rebuild and get around the nation.  To read other Transportation Nation stories, click here. Let us know what you think in the comments below, on KPCC's Facebook page or on Twitter (@KPCC).