SAN JOSE -- About 50 people gathered in the evening chill earlier this month for a candlelight vigil at the corner of Vine and Oak streets near downtown. They stood just feet from the crosswalk where 3-year-old Elijah Alvitre had been struck and killed by a pickup as he was pushed in a stroller.

Omar Torres, who once helped make a video highlighting the dangers of the intersection, told his neighbors that he was saddened by the Nov. 24 tragedy.

"But to be brutally honest, I was not surprised," he said. "It's everywhere throughout the city. We all should work harder to make our streets safer."

This has been a particularly dangerous year on roadways throughout San Jose, with 26 traffic fatalities involving a pedestrian or bicyclist -- the highest total since at least 1997 and the most of any city in the Bay Area. The victims range from young Elijah to an 82-year-old woman, and they have left concerned residents searching for reasons for the spike.

San Jose native Monica Garcia, for one, wonders why authorities aren't doing more to enforce traffic safety. She knew Elijah and lives near where a 17-year-old high school student died after being hit by a car Dec. 3 while pedaling through the intersection of Branham Lane and Vistapark Drive.

"It seems like every week something like this is happening," said Garcia, a mother of two. "This is not right that we have kids dying in the streets. The cops really need to crack down to help pedestrians. It's so sad."

But Sgt. Matt Christian, the head of the San Jose Police Department's traffic investigations unit, said the rise isn't easily explained. Most of the 21 pedestrian fatalities do share a common factor -- people traversing high-traffic thoroughfares at night and outside a crosswalk. But, he added, that isn't something law enforcement can control.

One example, Christian said, is a 50-year-old woman, clad in dark clothing, who was hit and killed the evening of Nov. 25 on Monterey Road near Phelan Avenue.

"Overwhelmingly, we're seeing people cross major roadways where they shouldn't be, especially at night," added Laura Wells, deputy director of the city's Department of Transportation. "I walk at night and I'm acutely aware that while I can see vehicles, I know I might not be visible to cars coming down the street."

The increasing pervasiveness of technology in everyday life also continues to play a role in making the streets more hazardous.

"Phones are not going away. Gadgets are not going away," Christian said. "But we need to start focusing. One split-second of not paying attention, and it can change your life forever."

A 14-year-old girl killed Nov. 24 while crossing the street in front of James Lick High School was using her cellphone in a nonsignaled crosswalk when one car stopped for her, but a vehicle in the next lane did not, police said. That sort of mutual inattention -- by pedestrians and drivers alike -- was blamed for at least five of the city's pedestrian fatalities this year.

This isn't just a San Jose problem, said Tony Dang, deputy director of the statewide advocacy group California WALKS. He cites National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data that show the proportion of pedestrian fatalities compared to all traffic deaths has been trending upward -- reaching 22.4 percent in California in 2011, ranking behind just three other states.

This year, the 26 pedestrian and bicyclist deaths among San Jose's overall traffic fatalities of 39 represents the highest such proportion in nearly two decades. Those numbers don't include two pedestrian deaths in unincorporated parts of San Jose, including the hit-and-run death of a man on Bascom Avenue early Tuesday morning.

"Technology has improved the safety for people in cars, but we haven't invested in safety for other users of the roads," Dang added. "So while traffic fatalities are going down in the state, the share of people walking and riding their bikes (who die) are going up."

The picture was mixed in 2013 throughout the rest of the Bay Area. Oakland has recorded only seven pedestrian fatalities, while Fremont has none.

But San Francisco, one of the nation's most walkable cities, has seen pedestrian fatalities rise from 16 last year to 17. There, half of all traffic deaths are pedestrians, said Nicole Schneider, executive director of Walk San Francisco.

"It's important to remember that we're putting people up against two-ton, fast-traveling vehicles," she added. "It's a very unlevel playing field."

San Jose officials say the city is taking steps to improve pedestrian safety, including 32 projects that either recently had been completed or are in the design stage -- such as upgrading crosswalks with flashing beacons, constructing pedestrian refuge islands in the middle of intersections and adding radar speed display signs. Also, the city and Santa Clara County's Traffic Safe Communities Network have education programs aimed at school-age children and seniors, who make up the majority of pedestrian deaths.

Few of this year's fatalities are being prosecuted as felonies, but one exception is Rickey Lartigue, 55, who was charged with murder after backing over a 43-year-old man walking across Leeward Avenue in East San Jose on Aug. 17. Lartigue is accused of driving drunk and had six prior DUI convictions.

Still, only a handful of traffic fatalities a year result in charges, because of a lack of witnesses or evidence of gross recklessness on the part of drivers. Even those who are prosecuted for misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter typically receive sentences of community service.

"It's one of the only areas of the law where you're charged with a crime for being negligent. There's no intent to cause harm," said assistant district attorney James Gibbons-Shapiro.

Both Gibbons-Shapiro and Christian, the traffic sergeant, said ideally, drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians have to work in unison to ensure a safe road. But the reality is an increased safety burden rests with nonmotorists because they are so much more vulnerable.

"Reviewing these cases, it really struck me how thin a line it is between life and death," Gibbons-Shapiro said. "Drivers need to constantly remind themselves how unpredictable and dangerous it is what they're doing. And pedestrians need to remind themselves that not all drivers are as cautious as they should be."

Staff writer Mark Gomez contributed to this story. Contact Robert Salonga at rsalonga@mercurynews.com.

A LOOK AT PEDESTRIAN DEATHS IN SAN JOSE FROM 2007 TO 2011
11 percent of all crashes resulting in an injury or fatality involved pedestrians.
95 percent of pedestrian or bicycle crashes that resulted in a fatality occurred on major roads.
44 percent of pedestrian or bicycle crashes that resulted in a fatality involved people 61 years and older.
Source: City of San Jose Department of Transportation

SAFETY TIPS FOR PEDESTRIANS AND DRIVERS
Wear bright or reflective clothing when walking or biking at night. Bikes should have lights and reflectors. Pedestrians should consider carrying a flashlight.
Obey all traffic signs and signals.
Cross at intersections or crosswalks, not in the middle of the road or between parked cars.
Watch for traffic the entire time while crossing a street. If one car stops, don't assume that other motorists will also stop, especially on multilane roads.
Don't be a distracted driver. Attention should be on the road at all times.
Slow down in neighborhoods and near schools. And watch out for children.
Source: City of San Jose Department of Transportation