Hit by Tragedy, She Strides With New Purpose

Laguna resident Pamela Burrus, now a champion of pedestrian safety, thinks improvements are needed at the intersection of Brooks Street and Coast Highway. Photos by Mitch Ridder

Self-described social artist Pamela Burrus relies on different forms of media to advocate for various concerns. Two years ago, her mission took on greater urgency after her husband, Dr. David R. Burrus, was hit by a motorist in a crosswalk near Los Angeles International Airport and died 33 minutes later.

The accident that ended the couple’s 20-year love affair propelled the widow to become a proponent for pedestrian and motorist safety. She established Safer Passages, whose nonprofit status is pending, to honor her husband and 47,702 other pedestrians who died in the last nine years nationwide.

Burrus aims to reduce the number of pedestrian injuries and deaths with a catchy campaign to instill greater awareness in those hoofing it and behind the wheel alike. Safer Passages’ “Look Up!” campaign, which will be formally rolled out next month, was developed with the help of public relations professional Jessica Cohen in Beverly Hills.

Personal trauma often provides the catalyst for campaigns for social change.

The 1996 abduction and murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman in Texas led her parents to push for issuing bulletins commonly known as an “Amber Alert” when a child goes missing. And Candy Lightner in 1980 founded Mothers Against Drunk Drivers in California after her daughter, Cari, was killed by a repeat drunk driving offender.

Like her predecessors, Burros envisions a positive change emerging from her tragedy and enlisted seven board members for Safer Passages with natural empathy because they too were involved in a crosswalk incident either as a pedestrian or a motorist. Los Angeles film producer and board member Jeff Most has witnessed five collisions involving pedestrians and motorists.

People who have suffered personal tragedy are often the best advocates for a cause because they “are so committed emotionally to try to make an improvement,” said USC professor Doe Mayer, an expert in campaign strategies for social issues and health-related organizations.

Describing what she sees as an epidemic of pedestrian deaths and injuries, Burrus is not searching for a scapegoat. “If we work together, we can change the numbers,” she insists.

One of the town’s problem intersections, says safety advocate Pamela Burrus.

Safer Passages’ “Look Up!” campaign serves as a reminder to pedestrians and motorists alike to pay attention at crosswalks and make eye contact before proceeding, and a catchy jingle is planned to reinforce the message.

“Being aware as a driver and a pedestrian is really the key to moving around the city safely,” said Laguna police Lt. Jeff Calvert. In Laguna Beach, police department records since June 2007 show 91 accidents involved pedestrians, including four fatalities. After Coast Highway, Glenneyre Street proved the most dangerous thoroughfare for those on foot, records show.

It is just as important for drivers to slow down and drive cautiously as it is for pedestrians to take the time to use the marked crosswalks and to make sure oncoming drivers see them before they step into the crosswalk, said Calvert.

Even so, behavior changes can be agonizingly slow. Just ask Les Miklosy, chair of Laguna’s complete streets task force. For three years he’s tried to build support for the Complete Streets project, which aims to make local streets as accessible to bicyclists and pedestrians as they are to motorists.

Miklosy’s efforts finally saw some results last week when the City Council approved the installation of sharrows on Cypress and Monterey Drives to establish a non-Coast Highway bike route. “I could sure use some help,” he said, adding that “this is a community effort, you’ve got to get buy-ins from everybody.”

Burrus envisions a campaign that will do just that, by taking an upbeat approach rather than relying on scare tactics with horrific images of collisions. It is important to “put some sugar in the message,” she said.

Finding a positive way to frame the issue is “a really good idea,” agreed Mayer. “For the most part, fear messages don’t work well,” she said.

Today, a successful marketing drive for a commercial product or a cause taps an array of media sources to deliver a message in different ways, Mayer said. Even if funds are limited, you need to mix it up, she says.

Safety advocate Pamela Burrus.

The nonprofit Ad Council, standard-bearer for public service advertisements, claims their campaigns – even without social media — persuade people to change behavior. For example, seat belt usage rose to 79 percent from 14 percent as a result of a 1985 safety belt campaign, according to the Ad Council.

Burrus hopes that with a music video in the works, a catchy jingle and her own story telling, her public service message will win time slots on television and radio and in webcasts.

Besides a media push, Burrus expects to become a more visible advocate, speaking to groups to raise awareness and pushing authorities to address problem intersections. Laguna’s Parking, Traffic and Circulation Committee will consider Burrus’ request to install speed limit and pedestrian crossing signs at the intersections of Nyes Place, Highland Way and Victoria Place at their next meeting. She also is pressing for a lighted crosswalk at the intersection of Brooks Street and Coast Highway, among others.

“I really feel positive about this,” said Burrus. “I think we can make a huge difference.”


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  1. Good for you Pam Burrus! I applaud your efforts to make people more aware of the importance of simply paying attention and being where you are, whether driving or walking (or biking). I routinely see texting drivers, speeding drivers, clueless drivers, uncaring drivers figuring they don’t have to stop for a walker in the crosswalk because the next car probably will…as well as pedestrians not paying enough attention. It’s surprising that there have not been more injuries and fatalities. If everyone would just drive a bit slower and let their eyes scan across both sides of the street wherever there’s a crosswalk, lives would be saved.

  2. Hi Lagoona

    Thank you very much for your letter and for taking the times to write.

    Yes! You are exactly right about the constancy of Pedestrians & Motorists whom are Looking down or into their cell phones while driving or walking. That point is exactly why Safer Passages has started The Look Up Campaign!
    Actually, just a few hours ago, I saved myself from being hit on PCH simply by being certain to Look Up & Find the Eyes of the Motorists coming my way. While I was crossing the first lane and seeing the eyes of the motorist in that first lane I then looked to the second lane to see the driver’s eyes before stepping into her path.
    She appeared to be a petite woman in her late 20’s. She was responsible for the large black Escalade she was driving. However, she seemed to think she could do that well while she was looking into her cell phone texting. I was in the street, in the crosswalk, with a vehicle and lane behind me and I was searching for her to see my eyes before I would step further. She kept driving, she kept texting & she drove right up beside me! I was looking right into her passenger window that was down. She was then in the crosswalk with me & I was standing there in the street with all cars stopped on PCH, Natraj Indian food in front of me, Penguin Cafe behind me and to my left & she glanced up seeing only straight ahead, immediately dropping her gaze back down into her phone, steering with her left hand, right hand holding that cell phone & never even saw me in the street, in the crosswalk, beside her car seeing right in to her passenger window!
    Had I not waited to see the eyes of the driver in the second oncoming lane then the day after my
    Safer Passages article was so well written by Jennifer & shot by Mitch, Andrea & the LB Independent would have been publishing the story of me being hit by a woman texting.
    We have such a responsibility when we get behind the wheel of a car. A responsibility to the children & families that live in the towns we are driving in. Can you imagine how awful that poor woman would have felt to hit me & after hitting me she would have learned of my husbands death & of our five children. She would have suffered immensely knowing that if she had only seen the rode as a place to drive a car and not to text on a cell phone she could have saved a precious human life & prevented my children from further injury & heartache. Whatever she was texting certainly had to be something that could have waited or if not she could have handled it safely by pulling off the road and then texting verses how close she came to hitting me.
    My choice to Look Up & Find the Eyes prevented her carelessness from causing my children more suffering.

    The Look Up! Campaign will work and it will save thousands of lives & prevent needless suffering and life altering injuries if each one of us, as Pedestrians and as Motorists, take responsibility to make it important to practice the simple action of Looking Up to see the eyes of the Motorists driving towards us or to look for the eyes of the Pedestrians trying to cross the street that we as Motorists have the privilege and responsibility of driving on.

    I am so thankful you took time to write & that I was here to respond.
    I am also thankful for all of you that read this story in our town and have stopped me to say thank you, to share your streets you want fixed and to say you are sorry for my family’s loss & happy that I have started Safer Passages.

    Again, thank you all as it will take all of us, as Pedestrians & Motorists, practicing Look Up! to make a difference & to save lives & stop senseless, preventable injuries.

    Pamela Burrus
    Look Up!
    Safer Passages cause on Facebook

  3. Pam,

    I live in Portland, OR, and I hope I can do something to raise awareness in the Portland, OR area, as I am sure all of Chugiak Alums are willing to do.

    A tragedy for your entire family, but a blessing to the world of your efforts to bring a positive message from such a tragic loss.


  4. Pam, bless you for having the patience and intelligence to articulate this issue! A few weeks ago, I told my 12-year-old son to make eye contact with any driver, never to assume they see you. I am glad you have made a campaign around this simple idea – it will save lives. I very much admire what you are doing and that you chose to take your personal tragedy and make it into something positive. You are a light in the world and I honor you for your strength and fortitude. May you be happy and may you remain strong.

  5. Dear Tina,

    I am delighted to receive your reply!
    Thank you for choosing to give Pedestrian & Motorist Safety
    & my families devastating loss your attention.
    I also, always, appreciate our Alaska Mustang family, Chugiak High School!
    At this time, what is most helpful will be to share this article.
    Here is the Link; http://lbindy.com/2011/09/30/hit-tragedy-strides-purpose/
    If you can repost this link into a family news letter, a work group email, a company
    Web site, sharing our story and our goal; to decrease Pedestrian
    Deaths & Injuries that would be great. Our goal at Safer Passages
    Is to decrease the number of deaths with Education, Awareness & Advocacy.
    I am available to speak on this matter & on healing during the greif cycle which is part of the death of our Loved ones.
    Thank you Tina!
    Safer Passages & The Look Up Campaign


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