These People Are Working to Stop Milwaukee’s Reckless Driving Epidemic

City officials and concerned citizens alike are looking for ways to put the brakes on the “Milwaukee Slide.”

Jordan Morales, a member of a concerned citizens group called the Sherman Park Reckless Driving Commission, is standing on a corner of the intersection of Sherman Boulevard and Burleigh Street, which he says is plagued by dangerous driving. He joined the group, which meets regularly with city and law enforcement officials, after he moved to the neighborhood three years ago and “immediately noticed” the driving problems here. 

“Reckless driving is the No. 1 quality of life issue in Milwaukee, easily,” Morales says, especially in Sherman Park. He’s interrupted by a truck that loudly roars through the intersection going at least twice the posted 30 mph speed limit. Other problems Morales notes are people running red lights, and then he points out a car engaging in an obnoxious and dangerous maneuver that’s so common it has its own nickname: the “Milwaukee Slide” It’s when a driver uses the turn, parking or – as in this particular case – a bike lane to zoom ahead and pass traffic on the right. 


 

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“It gets on everyone’s nerves because we’re all waiting in line, and then this person thinks the rules of the road don’t apply to them and they can skip everyone,” Morales says. “I’d say it’s just part of the rotten driving culture that we have in the city of Milwaukee, and it’s something that needs to be fixed. We’ve let it go for far too long.” 

“I have folks in my district who have told me they’re afraid to cross Capitol Drive to the closest local grocery store because of reckless driving.”

-CAVALIER JOHNSON, MAYOR


Someone who agrees with that is Mayor Cavalier Johnson. He’s made addressing driving problems one of the three major points in his thus far brief administration, along with shootings and policing. And it’s an issue he’s very familiar with. As a former alderman representing the North Side’s 2nd District, he had to grapple with some of the streets that see the most reckless driving: 76th, Fond du Lac, Silver Spring, Capitol. 

“Capitol Drive is probably the most notorious street in the city for reckless driving,” Johnson says. “I have folks in my district or who live nearby who have told me they’re afraid to cross Capitol Drive to the closest local grocery store in our district because of reckless driving.”

Johnson sees several causes of the problem. 

Where the Wild Drivers Are

The statistics bear out what many North Siders already know: Capitol Drive is Milwaukee’s most dangerous street. A study of data from 2016-17 by the Department of Public Works showed that six out of 10 of the top intersections with car crashes were along that thoroughfare – a total of 344 crashes in two years, or just about one every other day – including the No. 1 intersection, Capitol at Sherman Boulevard. Both Mayor Johnson and Capt. Jeffrey Sunn, who oversees the Traffic Safety Unit, put Capitol at the top of their list of problem streets. 

Last year, a 17-year-old girl died when the man driving her lost control of his car on 10th and Capitol and crashed into a bus shelter, and two 18-year-old men died after they drove a stolen car through a red light on 60th and Capitol and hit another vehicle and then a light pole, among other fatal crashes. They were among 47 people who died due to reckless driving on Milwaukee streets in 2021 – a terrible toll, but down sharply from a year earlier, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. 

In 2020, 70 of the city’s 78 traffic deaths were attributed to reckless driving, and a third of the reckless driving deaths happened on three streets: 27th Street (the deadliest Milwaukee road, with 12 fatalities), Fond du Lac Avenue and Center Street. This came even as total crashes dropped 17% from the previous year to 8,381 – the theory being that fewer people on the roads during the first year of the pandemic led to more severe reckless driving.

 

Sticks installed at the intersection of 56th and North Avenue are meant to prevent drivers from “sliding” into the bike lane; Photo by Rob Gustafson

“I was fortunate to have a job so I could afford driver’s ed classes, but not everyone can, and that doesn’t mean they’re not driving,” Johnson says. He also cites the “no-pursuit policy” that was in place with the Milwaukee Police Department until 2017, which prevented police from chasing a suspect unless they knew they had committed a violent felony. That was intended to stop high-speed chases over stolen cars that often ended in fatal crashes, but Johnson says it also fostered a culture of lawlessness on the roads. “I’ve heard police say that people would speed by flipping them off because they knew they wouldn’t be pursued,” Johnson says. 

A city-county task force with members from the mayor’s office, police department, municipal court, health department and other agencies studied the issue for a year and a half, issuing its findings in June 2020. The report focuses on three key areas in the fight to curb reckless driving: changing the city’s streetscape, boosting enforcement and accountability, and prevention and education. 

Among the board’s many recommendations were public awareness campaigns, wider availability of driver’s ed classes, increased reckless driving penalties, and re-engineered roads to slow traffic. 

Ald. Michael Murphy, the task force’s chair, notes that he followed up by adding a budget amendment to “allocate money towards prevention and education, and created a program where we distributed grants to 19 community organizations.” 

Johnson says he will pursue more of the committee’s recommendations and adds that his own plan, which he calls S.T.A.N.D. for Safer Streets, already reflects many of them. “An all-hands-on-deck approach to take a stand against reckless driving will be my top priority,” he said at a December press conference unveiling his plan.

On the enforcement front, MPD Chief Jeffrey Norman created a new Traffic Safety Unit in winter of 2021, reallocating 20 officers to focus on reckless driving. A crime analyst assigned to the unit reviews data and citizen complaints to steer its officers to problem areas. 

Capt. Jeffrey Sunn, who oversees the unit, says that in their first year the Traffic Safety Unit issued about 21,500 citations. “Over half those were speeding violations,” Sunn says, and another 4,000 or so were licensing issues. 

Equally important is the need for safe street design, which involves reworking streets with a “road diet” or slowing traffic by narrowing or reducing lanes, switching car lanes with bike lanes and pedestrian islands, and creating barriers to stop moves like the Milwaukee Slide. 

A PSA With a Sick Beat

Milwaukee’s reckless driving epidemic is something Tracey Dent witnesses almost every day. He runs a nonprofit called Peace for Change Alliance, but it’s his part-time work as an Uber driver that has given him a front-row seat to Milwaukee’s dangerous streets. Not once but twice, cars have blasted by his Honda Accord firing guns at one other – once at 27th and Center streets, another on Fond du Lac Avenue. 

Dent was inspired to start the Voices Against Violence Coalition in 2013 to address gun violence. Then, when 7-year-old Londyn Quesada was killed in a hit and run by drag racers on North 76th Street in October 2020, musical artists that Dent has worked with said they wanted to do something.

They came up with “Over the Limit,” a hip-hop song and video produced last year that they hope will encourage people to “think twice” about reckless driving, featuring local artists QB Speaks, Mani Imani, Viv Vid and Crysy B. MPD participated in the video, with officers as actors. “A lot of people don’t watch the news or pay attention to billboards,” Dent says. “The best way to reach out, especially to young people, is through music.”

Such PSA campaigns are a key recommendation of a recent local task force on reckless driving. Dent has met with Mayor Cavalier Johnson and other city and law enforcement officials to talk about driving concerns and possible solutions. 

“As a community we need to hold the Milwaukee Police Department and our elected officials more accountable, speak up more,” Dent says. “We also need to hold ourselves accountable, meaning that if we see something, we need to speak up, call the police. We need to let our elected officials know, ‘We have all these stolen cars in this area. Can you help get the police out here?’”

“Over the Limit” music video about reckless driving; Video stills via YouTube.

Sunn says such measures have already proven to be effective in some areas. In Riverwest, the Locust Avenue bridge over the Milwaukee River now has bike lanes protected by signs and concrete partitions. In Washington Heights, on North Avenue between 55th and 60th streets, every corner has a semicircle of white and green plastic rods bolted to the road to deter motorists from “sliding” into the bike lanes. 

Similar arrangements of sticks and planters are found on 27th Street between Wisconsin and Highland avenues, and on the Hawley Road bridge over the Menomonee Valley. “Since the planters and sticks were placed in that area, taking two travel lanes down to one, we have seen a drastic decrease in accidents along that corridor,” Sunn says. “This is also true along North Avenue and Locust Street.” He adds that although there was a recent fatal accident on Hawley, “overall the numbers from the traffic sticks along that route has helped in the decrease of accidents.”

This success ties into part of Johnson’s plan that he wants to build on – a call for using tax increment revenue to improve streets to increase safety for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. “There are a number [of projects] that are happening on the South Side, near the stadium business park, Downtown near Cathedral Square Park and on Water Street, and in my own former aldermanic district on Capitol and Fond du Lac,” Johnson says. “The investments we make in infrastructure will prioritize individuals rather than a sole focus on moving vehicles around.” 


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s April issue.

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