Crosswalks a danger zoneSafe passage along urban streets is far from certain. Accident statistics reveal an alarming disregard for crosswalk laws.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
Mary Alice Harvey doesn’t remember when it happened, except that it was about six years ago.
Harvey, now 84 and a resident of Mount Royal Manor, was walking east on the north side of Superior Street in downtown Duluth. She waited at a stoplight at Third Avenue West, then started across the street when the light turned green and the WALK signal lit up. But she retreated when she noticed a motorist speeding down the hill with no apparent intention of stopping.
Without slowing, the driver made a right turn onto Superior Street.
“The back right wheel ran over my foot,” Harvey wrote in an e-mail. “I yelled out in pain, and THEN he stopped enough to lean out and yell at me that he had a legal right to turn right on a red light!”
Stunned, Harvey failed to get the driver’s license plate number and was left to deal with her medical bills.
Crossing the street is dangerous.
About 5,900 pedestrians are killed by automobiles every year in the U.S., according to the National Safety Council, and another 85,000 are injured.
Crosswalks are far from offering a safe passage. A 10-year study in Portland, Ore., concluded that 49 percent of pedestrian injuries occurred in crosswalks; blame was split almost equally between pedestrians and motorists.
Last year, one of the victims was Patricia Lenski, who lived in St. Ann’s Residence on East Third Street in Duluth. On the afternoon of Nov. 30, she was traversing the Third Street crosswalk at Fourth Avenue East when she was struck by a Honda Odyssey van. Lenski was taken to SMDC Medical Center, where she died from her injuries on Dec. 20. No charges were filed in the case.
In Minnesota, a motorist who fails to yield to a pedestrian faces a $178 fine. But that seldom happens in Duluth: Nine citations were issued in 2009 and two so far this year, according to Sgt. Jim Lesar, who is in charge of the Duluth police traffic office.
Laws in both Minnesota and Wisconsin state that pedestrians have the right of way in crosswalks. Crosswalks exist at every intersection, regardless of whether they are marked — though pedestrians must obey traffic signals. And there’s another caveat: Pedestrians aren’t allowed to enter a crosswalk if there’s not a reasonable opportunity for drivers to stop.
Some motorists say pedestrians sometimes violate that part of the law.
Sandy Rengo of Esko takes her children to music lessons at the University of Minnesota Duluth once a week, and she’s concerned about students who appear oblivious to traffic.
“It’s as if they think the crosswalk is some sort of force field that will protect them from injury,” Rengo wrote in an e-mail. “I’m not saying the law isn’t a good one, but pedestrians need to be aware that regardless of the law, a pedestrian is no match for a moving vehicle.”
Pedestrians have a corresponding list of complaints about drivers: They turn right on red without checking to see if anyone is crossing to their right; they’re inattentive; they’re just plain rude.
“They’re unaware,” said Tom Cannon, a crossing guard on Tower Avenue for children attending Bryant Elementary School in Superior. “I couldn’t give you percentages, but there’s so many people on cell phones, it’s beyond belief.”
George Miks, 73, left the American Bank in Chisholm on Oct. 14, 2008, and began crossing Lake Street with the green light. “I heard a screech,” the retired physician recalled. “The next thing I knew, I was on the hood of a vehicle, sliding down to the pavement.”
The driver was cited for not having insurance and inattentive driving. Miks sustained a severe bruise on his left leg, but no broken bones. Three more vehicle-pedestrian accidents occurred within a short time in Chisholm, he said, one of them fatal.
Harvey continues to experience frustrations, particularly at Norton Street and Woodland Avenue. Nonetheless, she said motorists seem more aware of pedestrians now than they were a few years ago.
But Drew Digby thinks the long-term trend is pedestrian-unfriendly.
“The roads have always belonged to everyone,” said Digby, an analyst for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development who is chairman of Fit City Duluth’s Active Living committee. “It’s only during the last 20 to 30 years that the absolute cars-always-have-priority attitude has come about.”
Digby is at the forefront of the effort to establish “complete streets” in Duluth that would be easily accessible to bicyclists and pedestrians as well as to motorists. But pedestrians need to be able to travel safely throughout town, not just in particular areas, Digby said.
“We need to do better education for thinking about how people behave around crosswalks,” Digby said. “Some of it is teaching pedestrians to be safe, but take the right of way when it is the right of way.”
Physical changes can be made as well.
Plans to redesign Tower Avenue to make it safer and more pleasant for pedestrians have been OK’d, said Luke Sydow, a landscape architect who owns SAS & Associates of Duluth. Sydow, who designed the project, said parking will be eliminated near intersections, curbs will be pushed out at the intersections, raised medians will be added halfway across the road, and lighting and landscaping will be used to increase pedestrian comfort. Construction is expected to begin in 2013.
But Cindy Voigt, a city engineer for Duluth, said design can do only so much. She told of attending weekly meetings for a year at Harrison Community Center in Lincoln Park. She would park across the street and walk across on a crosswalk that is marked by a neon-green sign surrounded by flashing lights. In spite of that, drivers consistently failed to stop for her.
By contrast, during a recent training conference in Marshall, Minn., she went for her morning jog. On five different occasions, drivers stopped and waited at crosswalks for her, even before she reached the intersection.
“Different methods and signs and things don’t necessarily make people do the right thing,” Voigt said. “The message is to do the right thing when you’re driving, and do the right thing when you’re walking, and do the right thing when you’re biking. … Do that Minnesota Nice thing when you’re driving.”