A father died crossing a dangerous Sacramento road. His 13-year-old son was watching

Sam Dent, a 41-year-old father of two and an angler who had fished just about every body of water in the capital region, was hit by a car and killed on a dangerous Sacramento road Feb. 26. Johnny Dent said his younger brother was crossing San Juan Road to meet his 13-year-old son, who was waiting for him.

Sam was struck and killed at the intersection of San Juan and Airport roads in North Natomas. The city has identified San Juan Road as part of the “high-injury network” — the streets that have the most traffic deaths and serious injuries.

Airport Road ends at San Juan, and the city has not installed a crosswalk for pedestrians attempting to cross the major roadway. The immediate area does not have much development, and on the south side of San Juan at that intersection, there are no homes or businesses: Essentially, the road abuts the freeway.

However there is still a homeless encampment on the south side of the road, which is where Sam lived. The father died at the nexus of two Sacramento crises: Unsafe road infrastructure and a spiraling homelessness epidemic.

In 2021, a cyclist was severely injured at the same intersection where Sam was killed. The intersection is in a 40 mph zone, but San Juan has an unprotected bike lane that leaves cyclists fully exposed to lethal speeds. A study in Accident Analysis & Prevention found that when a driver collides with a pedestrian while traveling 40.6 mph, the pedestrian’s average risk of death is 50%.

UC Berkeley’s Transportation Injury Mapping System shows that between 2012 and the end of 2023, six fatal crashes occurred on San Juan Road, including a devastating single-vehicle car wreck last May in which Rayshawna Armstrong, 25, her 3-year-old son, Zayden Mangram, and 5-year-old Alex Leon were killed. The driver and seven other young children were severely injured in the crash, including Armstrong’s daughter, Lajayla, then 6.

Their car slammed into a tree just a few feet away from the site of a deadly 2017 single-car collision.

In two of the six fatal San Juan Road crashes mapped by the university, the victims were pedestrians like Sam. A pedestrian was hit by a car and killed on San Juan Road at Ishi Circle in 2022. At Bandon Way, another pedestrian was hit by a car and killed in 2021.

Vision Zero pledge

“Traffic deaths and serious injuries are often preventable, are a public health issue and must be effectively addressed,” said Gabby Miller, a spokeswoman for Sacramento’s Department of Public Works. “The City of Sacramento recognizes that safety of human life is our highest priority.”

Miller said that East Commerce Way will eventually be extended south to meet San Juan Road just west of Airport Road, and the city will put in a signal at that new intersection when it exists. Additionally, a bike path that is fully separated from traffic — referred to as a “shared-use” path — has been approved for around three quarters of a mile of Airport Road north of San Juan. However, Miller said, that approved plan currently has no funding.

Seven years ago, Sacramento announced a “Vision Zero” pledge to eliminate all traffic fatalities and serious injuries in the city. Other cities and countries have shown that the vast majority of such deaths are preventable.

Hoboken, New Jersey, announced in January that it had gone seven years without a traffic death.

On a larger scale, Sweden halved the number of people killed on its roads between 2008 and the end of 2017. The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Mobility and Transit reported that in 2022, a total of 227 people died in traffic incidents across the entire Scandinavian nation of 10 million people. Sacramento saw 78 deaths that year in a city of 525,000 people — six and a half times the death rate.

In the years since Sacramento leaders promised to prevent deaths like Sam’s, the California capital has made some improvements; city spokeswoman Miller has highlighted the recent installation of significant stretches of parking-protected bike lanes in the city center.

In January, Karina Talamantes, the City Council representative for the district in which Sam was hit by a car, pushed the council to commit $90,000 to the planning and permitting phase of a project that would slow down drivers in the San Juan Road curve where Armstrong, Mangram and Leon were killed last May, east of the collision that killed Sam.

But, unlike Hoboken and Sweden, Sacramento has struggled to consistently fund meaningful road safety projects, and the deaths have continued. The city largely relies on competitive grants to pay for these improvements, and no money in the general fund is dedicated to this particular public safety issue.

The Transportation Injury Mapping System has found that between the year of the Vision Zero announcement and the end of 2023, 186 pedestrians and cyclists died in Sacramento. In the first month of 2024, information released by the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office confirmed that four people — Mattie Nicholson, 56, Kate Johnston, 55, Aaron Ward, 40, and Jeffrey Blain, 59 — were struck by a car and killed while walking or biking.

Like Sam, all of them were fatally struck on roads the city has previously identified as dangerous.

Two brothers against bullies

Sam Allan Dent was born in Iceland on Aug. 25, 1982, to Janice and Clifton Dent. His father was a technical sergeant in the Air Force and worked as an aircraft mechanic, a career that led the family to the Nordic country. Sam’s older brother Johnny said that when Sam was still a toddler, Clifton was assigned to McClellan Air Force Base, and the family moved to North Highlands.

Johnny is nine and a half years older than Sam, and the age difference could make their relationship challenging. “Having the older brother who’s always over-protective isn’t always so great,” Johnny said. “I got told that a lot: ‘I can handle myself.’”

He remembered that when Sam was around 8 or 9, he was being bullied in school by some sixth graders. Johnny said, “I had to show up after school, pick him up, and they were trying to bully him, and I had to step up.” Then in his late teens, he told the sixth graders to leave his brother alone, and, after that intervention, they did.

Johnny remembers his brother insisting that he hadn’t needed help. “He was always telling me. ‘I can handle myself.’ And I’m like, ‘No, it doesn’t matter. I’m still gonna make sure you’re safe.’”

Johnny graduated high school and joined the Army, and Sam was on his own for a while. Around the time that Sam was headed to high school, Clifton and Janice decided to move to East Nicolaus in Sutter County. The boy enrolled at East Nicolaus High School, where he played football.

When Johnny returned to the Sacramento region after getting out of the military in the mid-’90s, things were different between the Dent brothers. Johnny, then a young adult with young children, had an apartment of his own to host Sam.

“My mom would bring him over after school, drop him off, and we’d spend the weekend at my house,” Johnny said. “We’d barbecue and play darts and just spend time together.”

Johnny was better at darts. “But on the pool table, he, hands-down, could beat me,” he said.

Brotherly shenanigans and complex grief

After his high school graduation, Sam attended mechanic school in Arizona. He returned to the capital region and worked as a mechanic on rice farming equipment in Sutter County.

“He always told me that once you understand the basics (of machinery), everything else just falls around it,” Johnny said. “It’s just a learning curve, and sometimes parts are just a little bit bigger.”

The brothers loved to hunt and fish together, and largemouth bass was their perennial favorite. Sometimes they would go fishing two or three times a week.

“There’s not a pond in Sacramento — any body of water in Sacramento — that we haven’t finished,” Johnny said. “I mean McKinley Park, I mean the ponds behind Folsom High School. All the little ponds throughout Folsom. The river off of Manzanita, you know? We went everywhere.”

The brothers even went as far as to sneak onto a golf course in Auburn. “We knew from hearsay,” Johnny said, “that the golf course had some really big largemouth bass in there.” The brothers didn’t catch any genuinely giant fish in the golf course water features, but the escapade made them laugh.

Over the last few years, Sam and Johnny had grown distant. Johnny remained close with Sam’s two sons, Connor and Sam II, now 13 and 16. But Sam had made a series of damaging choices that Johnny didn’t agree with, and the brothers seldom spoke. Sam had lost his housing and was living in the homeless encampment at San Juan and Airport roads — the intersection he was crossing when he was fatally struck on his visitation day with his 13-year-old son, whose mother had just dropped him off.

Sam’s life had become unstable, and it’s unclear whether he would have been able to recover. Now, his family will never know.

But since Sam’s death, Johnny said he’s been feeling his presence.

“I don’t know if you believe in the supernatural or not,” Johnny said about a month after the crash, “but I can tell you right now, my brother’s spirit has been around me for the past three, four days.”

It was a little hard to explain, he said, but he was convinced.

“In his own way, he’s making me open up,” Johnny said. “So I’m trying to deal with it.”

He and his nephews have been texting photos of Sam back and forth, just to remember him together.

In the groupchat, Johnny was also helping his teenage nephews tailor a playlist for their father’s funeral.

Johnny’s had good days and bad days. He’s muscling through the grief most of the time, and it’s been complicated because the pair weren’t on good terms. Before his brother was killed on one of Sacramento’s dangerous roads, “I had so much dislike for him for so long.

“But,” Johnny said after a pause, “saying that, that’s still my only brother.”

Sam Dent, 41, died Feb. 26 when a car hit him at intersection of San Juan and Airport roads.
Sam Dent, 41, died Feb. 26 when a car hit him at intersection of San Juan and Airport roads.

Sam Allan Dent

Father of two and mechanic.

Age: 41

Died: Feb. 26

Survived by: Brother Johnny Dent and sons Connor, 13, and Sam, 16.