Cities try to improve crosswalk safety

( USA TODAY )- Cities alarmed by deaths and injuries of pedestrians are ramping up efforts to make crosswalks safer for people on foot, especially seniors and children who need more time to cross streets.

A pedestrian is killed in a traffic crash in the USA every 110 minutes; one is injured every nine minutes, according to federal data. Crosswalks can be especially perilous for the elderly. Among people 70 and older, 36% of pedestrian deaths in 2006 occurred at intersections, compared with 21% of those younger than 70, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The Federal Highway Administration will recommend next year that states increase by nearly 15% the amount of time traffic signals afford pedestrians to cross the street after the flashing orange hand appears.

FHWA spokesman Doug Hecox says reasons for the change include an aging population that needs more time to cross; health-conscious Americans walking more; children encouraged to walk to prevent obesity and high gas prices pushing people to walk instead of drive.

Pedestrian deaths declined 12% from 5,449 in 1996 to 4,784 in 2006, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says. Those numbers are still too high for cities working to enhance safety:

•In Portland, Ore., where 49% of pedestrian injuries occur in crosswalks, police conduct monthly crackdowns similar to drunken-driving stings. Police identify an intersection where pedestrians have complained about motorists. They post signs warning drivers of "crosswalk enforcement ahead" and have pedestrian decoys try to cross the street. "If the drivers don't stop, a line of police on motorcycles will pull them over," says April Bertelsen, the city's pedestrian coordinator. Portland also has an "I Brake for People" campaign to educate drivers.

• St. Petersburg, Fla., partly attributes major reductions in pedestrian accidents to rapid-flashing signals that have raised the rate at which drivers yield to people in crosswalks to above 80% from about 8% at 18 marked intersections. The devices, which flash in an irregular pattern to alert drivers to pedestrians, will be field-tested next in Cambridge, Mass., Las Cruces, N.M., and Mundelein, Ill.

• Washington, where two women crossing Pennsylvania Avenue on a green light were killed last year by a city bus in a crosswalk, plans to add innovative signals developed by the city of Tucson at about 30 locations, says George Branyan, the city's pedestrian program coordinator.

• Phoenix is replacing 1,000 traditional traffic lights with countdown-timer signals that tell people how many seconds they have to cross. The signals could cut pedestrian accidents by up to 25%, traffic engineering supervisor Michael Cynecki says. "The countdown is so self-explanatory even a third-grader can understand it," he says.

• Denver, Knoxville, Tenn., and several other cities, have implemented a method in which all traffic at an intersection is stopped for about 30 seconds and pedestrians can cross in any direction.

Many factors at work

In 2006, 471 pedestrians nationwide were killed in crosswalks, down slightly from 488 10 years earlier, according to the NHTSA. Several factors contribute to danger at crosswalks:

•Highways are designed and built primarily to accommodate vehicles, not pedestrians.

•Most pedestrian accidents at intersections involve turning vehicles. Drivers who routinely fail to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks run little risk of being cited unless they actually strike a pedestrian.

•About one-third of pedestrian deaths result from their disobeying traffic signals or using poor judgment, according to federal data.

Richard Nassi, Tucson's transportation administrator, remembers a wreck in 1998 vividly: Some young children were crossing Valencia Street with their older sister when they were struck by a vehicle. Two children were killed, three others were seriously injured, and the driver sped off.

"That was just heartbreaking," says Nassi, 63, who had spent 20 years in the city's Traffic Engineering Division. "Anytime someone is killed it's bad, but when they just drive away and leave the kids in the road, it's just outrageous."

Breakthrough in Tucson

The city didn't allow the tragedy to fade without meaning. Nassi and the city set out to improve pedestrian safety by making engineering improvements and educating young pedestrians. Arizona consistently ranks among the worst states for pedestrian fatalities, and Tucson had a pedestrian fatality rate of 3.26 per 100,000 people.

That rate since has fallen to 2.54. A pedestrian traffic signal developed by Nassi helped increase the percentage of drivers who yield to pedestrians at intersections to 97% from 31%.

Next year, that device, which Tucson dubbed the HAWK (High-intensity Activated crossWalK), will be included in the Federal Highway Administration's Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which provides standards to the states.

"It's exciting for us, and it's also exciting that we can do something to help make it better for people in other places," Nassi says.

The HAWK, which Tucson adapted from a signal used at railroad and firetruck crossings in England, is used at marked crosswalks where there is no traffic light. It's a beacon signal featuring a yellow-red lens visible to drivers.

When a pedestrian wishes to cross, he pushes a button to activate the signal. A flashing yellow is followed by a solid yellow advising drivers to prepare to stop. The signal changes to a solid red for drivers, and the pedestrian gets a walk signal. The signal then converts to a flashing red, indicating that drivers may proceed when it's safe to do so after stopping.

"That is a major breakthrough," says Branyan of Washington. "Many crosswalks are multilane roads. It's extremely difficult to cross because of the number of lanes and number of cars. We've found that you need to do much more than just put some paint down, because the paint isn't enough to get drivers' attention."

Not all of the efforts to protect pedestrians are high-tech. Many cities have improved safety by placing simple pylon signs at crosswalks. The signs warn drivers that state law requires them to stop.

Seattle is considering adding buckets of bright orange flags for pedestrians to wave while in a crosswalk. They return the flag to another bin when safely across. Washington and cities in Maryland, Virginia and Utah use similar flags.

Tucson is still out there on the cutting edge. The city is working on a traffic signal that uses sensing equipment in the crosswalk. If an elderly or handicapped person needs more time to get across and is still in the crosswalk, the signal lengthens the walk time, Nassi says.

"So far, it looks very promising," he says.

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