Unpaved snow leaves blind pedestrians worried about their safety and livelihood

Published: Feb. 9, 2023 at 7:02 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - It was supposed to be routine half-hour walk on a sunny and dry winter day for Koni Simms. Just a couple of stops for errands — the bank, then a convenience store to grab a gallon of milk.

Instead, January 24 was an hour-long ordeal-turned-nightmare for the legally blind Simms, who at one point feared for her life because of sidewalks and street corners were piled with slippery snow and ice.

“Everyone complains about how the roads are, and I agree the roads are bad,” Simms said. “But sidewalks are our roads, so if you want roads cleared, just think about how pedestrians want their road clear. We should have the same rights as drivers.”

January was one of the snowiest months on record in the history of Sioux Falls, leaving mountains of snow like we’ve never seen. We also know how annoying and potentially unsafe it is to walk on paths with snow and ice.

So, imagine how treacherous those walks would be if you couldn’t see where you were walking.

“A person doesn’t think about it until it affects them,” Simms said.

The scariest moment on this Jan. 24 excursion came at a busy central Sioux Falls intersection, where Simms encountered a three-foot-high snow bank. Inches away, vehicles were buzzing by her at over 30 mph. Some, much faster.

”I ended up having to hold on to the top of the snow and crawl down on the other side so I wouldn’t slide and fall down,” said Simms, who also has mobility issues lingering from a foot injury years ago.

Simms wasn’t using her walking cane because she had taken her route hundreds if not thousands of times, and it was a dry day almost a week removed from the snowstorm.

“You hope that your footing doesn’t slip and you don’t fall back toward the road because the cars don’t watch to see if you’re going to fall backwards or if you’re going to fall forward,” Simms said.

Simms and her husband Seth are both blind, and her husband is hearing impaired, to boot. They occasionally use public transit, but they have to walk blocks, if not miles, just to catch it. They occasionally hitch rides from friends and family, “but we don’t like to take advantage of them.” So, their feet are their primary mode of transportation.

“People rely on our sidewalks to get from Point A to Point B,” said Matt Tobias, the city’s neighborhood revitalization manager. “They’re a crucial mode of our transportation system. So, when people rely on those to get wherever they need to get in our city, it’s really important to make sure these things are safe.”

But drivers often aren’t mindful, Simms said.

The Simms have had brushes with injury and even death while walking before. On one warm summer day a few years back, a trucker who didn’t see them — and of course, they didn’t see — struck both Koni and Seth to the ground, nearly beheading her, as she described it.

In other words, their commutes are difficult enough when there isn’t snow and ice involved. On an unseasonably warm and calm 40-degree day, Simms proved her point by insisting a Dakota News Now reporter put on a blindfold and navigate a stretch of her route, with both her guidance and the assistance of her walking cane.

Over the course of one city block and span of 10 minutes, the reporter was constantly confused and unsure about where the sidewalk was, where the street was, and how close cars were. Multiple times, a patch or pile of snow blocked continued access on the sidewalk and/or to cross the street.

It was like trying to find a way out of a maze in complete darkness.

And then, there was the trepidation that comes with knowing you could slip or fall and tumble into injury, and perhaps into traffic that could run you over at any point.

And now, the city is well aware. It was a walk Simms insisted a city official take with her as well.

A Groton native who moved to Sioux Falls in 1985, Simms spent much of her adult life standing up for the visually impaired, having served on both the South Dakota Association of the Blind and American Association of the Blind. She is currently a member of the city’s Pedestrian Committee, and has sat on the National Transportation Committee.

And, she is able to see objects at point-blank range. So, after nearly slipping off that waist-high bank and tumbling onto 33rd Street, Simms chronicled the rest of her walk, snapping 61 pictures of her dangerous obstacles.

She sent them all to Sioux Falls city planner Jeff Schmidt, who passed them along to Tobias, who is in charge of fielding and acting on complaints of unpaved residential properties. Tobias was out of town at the time of Simms’ complaint.

“Jeff was able to go out with her and walk and see some of (Simms’ route),” Tobias told Dakota News Now. “And he called me and told me, ‘yeah, it’s bad.’”

Over 1,000 complaints of snow and ice patches on residential and privately-owned business walkways have come to Tobias’s attention this winter. He said most complaints are addressed within 24 hours.

While the city is legally obligated to plow public roads, it’s up to property owners — business and residential — to clear sidewalks and plowed-in corners for pedestrians. A city ordinance requires that sidewalks be cleared 48 hours — “edge to edge, pavement to pavement,” Tobias said — after any snow or ice accumulation.

But nothing will be done about it unless his staff is aware. A citizen must call the city or use a phone app, notating the address of the unremoved snow. More information about contacting the city can be found here. (Simms said that the app is not user friendly for the visually-impaired. Tobias said he will pass that information along to those in the city who operate the app.)

The most common violators who create the most dangerous hazards are those who own property on street corners, where snow piles up from the plowing of the city streets, yet no paving of the obstacle occurs. This was the exact situation that almost seriously injured Simms.

Tobias has a “team of inspectors” spread throughout the city. Once notified of a complaint, an inspector visits the property. If the sidewalk is deemed unsafe, the inspector hangs a notification on the property owner’s door hinge, clearly stating that the owner has 24 hours to remove the snow and ice. An inspector comes back 24 hours later. If the obstacle is still there, a contractor is hired to remove it.

A $100 fine and the cost of the contract work is assessed to the property owner.

Both Simms and Tobias find it unfortunate, if not heartbreaking, that things have to get to that point.

”Do the right thing,” Tobias said. “Be a good citizen. Be a good neighbor and make sure your sidewalks are free and clear.”

Simms said it comes down to empathy for your fellow human. She doesn’t have her own children, but she makes sure her sidewalk is paved for kids who walk by every day on their way to school. She points out how these bumps and banks of snow also make walking unsafe for parents carrying young children, elderly people, and those who use walkers and wheelchairs.

“How would you feel if it was you or one of your loved ones or friends,” Simms said. “Would you want them to face those challenges?”

“It’s a matter of, you want to make sure that everyone is accepted and that we all are treated equal. Make sure that we accept and care for each other. That’s the big thing.”