RUN, DON’T WALK
BY BRENT D. WISTROM, The Wichita Eagle
An average of four times a week, a pedestrian or bicyclist is hit by a vehicle in Sedgwick County.
In all, 1,028 pedestrians and bicyclists were hit between 2001 and 2005, according to The Eagle’s analysis of accident reports from the Kansas Department of Transportation.
More than a quarter of the walkers and cyclists were hit in a place they should have been safe: crosswalks.
Consider the story of Brandy Walton, who was hit while walking in the crosswalk at the busy intersection of Douglas and Main.
When the signal said “WALK,” she walked across Douglas toward Intrust Bank. She had crossed there nearly every day for two years to have lunch with her mom, who works across the street.
But this day in October 2003 was different.
When Walton was four steps from reaching the other side of the street, a pickup hit her, tossing her onto the sidewalk and tumbling her up to the doors of the bank.
She never saw it coming.
“It happened so fast,” said Walton, now 32. “The only thought I had once I stopped rolling was ‘Oh Lord, I’m on the street. I have to get up.’ ”
Two off-duty paramedics arrived before she could get up. They told her not to move.
She was lucky: No broken bones, no internal injuries. Just some bumps, bruises and soreness, which she started to feel only the day after. Must have been all the adrenaline, she said.
Walton still works across the street from her mom. But they no longer have lunch together.
“Every time I come to that crosswalk, my heart rate increases and my palms start to sweat,” Walton said.
A national issue
Pedestrian fatalities nationwide rose more than 4 percent to 4,881 in 2005.
The increase was enough for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administ ration to open an investigation. The U.S. Department of Transportation announced in late August that it would give states $600 million to find ways to make pedestrians safer.
The number of pedestrian and bicyclist deaths in Sedgwick County has held steady, averaging five a year.
And the county is in the lowest third in the nation for pedestrian fataliti es per 100,000 residents, according to a recent federal study.
But the number of accidents over the past several years is startling all the same.
That number seemed surprisingly high to Wichita police Capt. Joe Dessenbe rger, who helps oversee serious accident investigations, and to Wichita traffic engineer Paul Gunzelman. That may be because they generally know about only the most severe accidents, they said.
The city issued a list of safety tips Friday, asking pedestrians and motorists to use more caution. It cited a recent accident in which one person was killed and another was seriously injured. The two were walking in the street early in the morning.
The federal safety administration has a simple recommendation for cities: Study the problem spots and identify things that could make them safer.
That includes cracking down on drivers who break laws in problem areas, adding street lights in areas with frequent nighttime accidents, lowering speed limits, building walkways, and limiting right turns on red lights in areas with a lot of pedestrian traffic.
It also can include installing islands in the middle of wide roads to reduce the amount of time pedestrians are exposed to traffic.
The idea of the crosswalk seems pretty simple.
Mark a spot where both walkers and drivers know people are supposed to cross and encourage people to cross there.
Pedestrians always have the right of way in crosswalks and at intersections.
In Wichita, it is illegal not to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk, and officers write tickets for the violation, Dessenberger said.
“I guarantee you, we will enforce it,” he said, even if the violation doesn’t result in an accident.
Still, Dessenberger said he doubted that officers write large numbers of tickets for the violation. No statistics were readily available.
And “legally having the right of way is no guarantee that a driver will yield it to you,” Gunzelman said. “You just can’t take pedestrian safety for granted.”
Pedestrians who jaywalk should yield to vehicles, but drivers and pedestrians must exercise due care to avoid collisions with each other, state law says.
The debate over whether crosswalks make pedestrians safer has been waged by pedestrian advocates, engineers and others for years.
Perhaps the most thorough study, conducted by the Federal Highway Administration last year, shows that on busy streets there are slightly more accidents at intersections with unmarked crossings than at crossings with crosswalks.
The number of accidents increases when there are more cars on the road, and the number of fatalities increases with the speed of vehicles.
Raised medians led to significantly lower pedestrian crash rates on multi-lane roads, compared to roads with no raised median, the federal agency reported.
In one study, conducted by researchers from several universities and agencies, researchers did the obvious.
They sat at street corners and timed how long it took people to cross. They watched the young, the middle-aged and the old as they crossed at five intersections in Miami Beach, Fla., in 1997.
Bottom line: Crossing often takes longer than the light gives people, especially older people.
Walton said her accident at Douglas might have been prevented by a longer walk signal.
At least in 2003, the “WALK” sign shone for six seconds, then blinked “DON’T WALK.” Some drivers may see that as a signal that it’s OK to pull out, she said.
“Unless you’re at a dead sprint, there’s no way you’re going to cross in six seconds,” Walton said.
Last Thursday, the “WALK” signal at the same intersection was illuminated for about five seconds. An orange “DON’T WALK” blinked for 15 seconds, indicating that no one should start crossing. Then “DON’T WALK” shone steadily as the traffic light turned yellow for three seconds before turning red.
Wichita follows the federal government’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices to determine where it needs crosswalks, signals and other signs, said the city’s head engineer, Jim Armour.
The city has programmed its lights to give people even more time than the national standard, which assumes people walk at about 4 feet per second. Wichita figures people cover about 31/2 feet per second, he said.
That means the city’s lights are intended to let people cross before the blinking “DON’T WALK” signal becomes a solid “DON’T WALK” signal.
The city can adjust a crosswalk light to give additional time for pedestri ans. Gunzelman, the city traffic engineer, said people who want to report crosswalks for that purpose can call 316-268-4393.
Children most at risk
Children are the most frequent victims of pedestrian or bicycle accidents, according to The Eagle’s analysis.
That is also true nationally, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Particularly high rates of accidents in Sedgwick County occur when kids are about 12 years old.
David Griekspoor was one of those kids.
When he was 11, David and his friends were riding bikes through their neighborhood on June 10, 2001. He made a U-turn without looking – and ran smack into an oncoming car.
“I turned around and there was a car behind me and I didn’t hear him,” David, now 16, remembered. “The car hit me and at that point, I flew up in the air and I went unconscious. People say I flew and hit the back windshield of the car that hit me and then I rolled off the back of the car and slid down the street.”
David’s mother, Jeannie Griekspoor, remembers the day well.
“I heard a loud bang and I opened the door and . . . it was David,” she said. “I couldn’t see; there was blood everywhere. He was in shock. I was trying to calm him down: ‘Just calm down, David, just calm down.’ I could hear somebody saying in the background, ‘He just jumped in the way,’ but I didn’t think about that.”
David was hospitalized overnight and underwent two reconstructive surgeries to repair injuries to his arm and head. He has no remaining health problems related to the accident.
Jeannie Griekspoor believes educating people about driving safely is the only way to prevent accidents, even in neighborhoods like hers where she suspects cars often speed on their way to Towne West mall.
“Parents need to train their children that no matter how late you are, it’s not worth a ticket or somebody’s life,” she said.
But it is often walkers and bikers who are at fault, based on local and state law.
Many accidents occur where there are no sidewalks or traffic controls to give pedestrians the right of way.
David Griekspoor was issued a ticket for $50.
Making streets safer
In addition to federal efforts to make walking and biking safer, Kansas is starting a program to make streets around schools more pedestrian-friendly.
The program, Safe Routes to School, was jump-started by Minnesota congress man Jim Oberstar in 2003.
It channels millions of federal tax dollars to programs to make walking and biking safer. Kansas will get about $1 million a year until 2009.
The program promotes the “three E’s” of pedestrian safety – engineering, education and enforcement.
In Wichita, where the city spends about $50,000 a year on new sidewalks along major streets that lack them, the federal grant money could help fill missing sidewalk links near schools and make it safer for kids to walk to school rather than ride with parents.
That’s a major part of the problem, according to Lisa Koch, the state’s Safe Routes to School coordinator.
Too many parents pick up and drop off their kids at school, crowding streets with kids and drivers.
“When you’re getting 100 cars on a road that’s not meant to withstand that, you get double parking, kids crossing . . . all of concern,” Koch said.
Wichita police have met with several schools about this issue, Capt. John Speer said. In some cases, more signs have gone up around the school and pick-up and drop-off points have been moved, he said.
As for kids, parents just have to continue teaching them good behavior, said Koch, a former teacher.
More attention could prevent almost all pedestrian accidents, Koch said.
“It’s important to just keep pressing on it,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to repeat a lesson to make a lesson real.”
Contributing: Barbara Isenberg and Tim Potter of The Eagle
Reach Brent D. Wistrom at 316-268-6228 or email@example.com.
— Broadway and Harry: 8
— Douglas and Mead: 7
— Douglas and St. Francis: 6
— Kellogg and Washington: 6
— Central and Ridge: 6
Source: The Wichita Eagle’s analysis of Kansas Department of Transportation data, 2001-2005
Walk and drive safer
Traffic safety experts say most accidents could be prevented, usually by paying closer attention.
That responsibility falls both on people behind the wheel and pedestrians and bikers sharing the road.
Here are some tips:
— Stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk, even if it is unmarked. When you stop, stay far enough back so that drivers in other lanes can also see the pedestrian in time to stop.