Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Modest Proposal

Folks around here are in a (understandable) dither over the death of a pedestrian in Rexburg Saturday night. This is the second pedestrian death in the last few months in Madison County, the fifth within a few years and the second within a year at what some are calling Rexburg’s most dangerous intersection. Calls are going out now for a four-way stop at the intersection, preparatory to the city installing a stoplight there.

I don’t know that the city could do anything more at the intersection short of these proposed plans than what they’ve already done. Since the death of BYU-Idaho student Chera Birch at the intersection of Second West and Third South last December, the city has installed improved street lighting and a crosswalk light pedestrians can activate themselves – with the push of a button, the lights flash yellow caution warnings to oncoming drivers.

Oncoming drivers. That’s a problem. Deloris Stanton, 72, was killed at the intersection Saturday night (and Bonnie Warne, 51, was injured) when a car changed lanes to pass a vehicle waiting for the ladies to cross the street. A similar thing happened a few years earlier at an intersection a block southwest of this one where a driver killed two young girls crossing the street under similar circumstances. Rexburg, many people say, just isn’t friendly to pedestrians.

Pedestrians. Another problem. When I push a button that activates a caution warning drivers that I’m crossing the street, I check to make sure drivers are heeding that warning. I’m grateful when one vehicle stops. But I’m on the lookout for the vehicle that isn’t stopping. I know what I’m talking about. When I was attending the University of Idaho, I was nearly struck by a vehicle that ran a four-way stop and barreled through the intersection, nearly clipping my toes as I stood in the crosswalk. I do say stood, because, as I was crossing the street, I had the sudden impression to stop walking. I stopped immediately. If I hadn’t, I would have likely been catapulted into the fa├žade of Shoup Hall.

So oncoming drivers are a problem. Pedestrians are a problem. And four-way-stops and stoplights don’t necessarily stop the two from meeting. (As for the clamor for a stoplight at the intersection in Rexburg, I have to wonder – do we need one here, when there’s one a block north of this intersection?)

The problem is this: Pedestrians and drivers are dealing with two factors that will constantly defeat any safety devices the city might install.

Both driver and pedestrian have tunnel vision. Intent on arriving at their final destination, the focus is on that goal – the traffic light ahead, the sidewalk where the walk to the concert hall can continue. If either driver or pedestrian took off the blinders and either wondered if that car coming was going to stop or why that other car was stopped in the first place, this accident would not have happened.

Both driver and pedestrian are dealing with a four-lane road. With four lanes of traffic, the pedestrian has to be wary of additional plains from which an oncoming car may arrive. And for the driver, the extra lane provides an easy escape when one lane is blocked – especially if the driver does not think to ponder why the car is waiting there in the first place.

It’s all a matter of paying attention to our surroundings, rather than continually focusing on that distant goal of travel – the final destination. I saw that in my three-year-old boy who was nearly hit by a car in Iona last year. He was trick-or-treating with us. He saw his mother and brothers across the street. He wanted to join them. He took off – right in front of a van, whose driver was mercifully paying attention and stopped in time, slamming on the brakes and scaring the wits out of our son.

It turned out well. He (and his sister, who witnessed the event) are much more cautious crossing the street now. They always look. They always watch the oncoming cars, and stay well out of the street until the cars pass. They’ve learned the lesson that while getting to the goal at the end is great, getting there in one piece is even better.

This is, of course, the harder solution. It’s easy to say spend a hundred thousand dollars on a traffic light, or clog Rexburg’s already difficult-to-navigate north-south route (there is only one, outside of Highway 20, which makes travel through town in those directions difficult at best) with another stoplight or stop sign. It’s easier to regulate traffic than behavior, and it’s easier to point to a four-way stop or a stoplight (even with a stoplight just a block to the north) as evidence that safety improvements have been made. It’s easier to put a stoplight there rather than encourage pedestrians to walk the extra block north to cross at an already-regulated intersection. We all want the shortest route. We all want to be safe. Shouldn’t safety trump the shortest route?

There’s been noise on some of the local news sites that it’s drivers from outside Madison County that are the problem. Well. I’ve lived in Madison County now for nearly twelve years, and can say that Madison County drivers are no better, nor any worse, than drivers from surrounding counties. Turn signals are a rarity here. There are some with 1M plates who do not for the life of them know what the left turning lane is for. I’ve also seen plenty of pedestrian near-misses where a vehicle whips around another that is waiting for a pedestrian to cross, rather than pondering why that car might be stopped. The pedestrians, in these cases, were smart enough to be watching, and stopped in time to avoid an accident. And as many 1M folks as I see yakking on cell phones, listening to MP3 players or otherwise distracting themselves as they drive, I’m surprised more pedestrian accidents and fatalities have not occurred.

This dimness does not end with drivers, either. I can’t count how many times a pedestrian has launched themselves from the curb when I’m only half a second away from that spot of crosswalk they want to use. Jaywalking is so common in this city that I travel in the inside lanes on purpose just to avoid the sudden curb-jumpers.

Put in a four-way stop or a stoplight if it’ll make you feel better. But consider that this is only one of dozens of intersections in the city where traffic is regulated only by a two-way stop. Do you want to spend a hundred thousand dollars at each intersection, or are we better off reminding ourselves to modify our own behavior, both as drivers and as pedestrians? I know which of the two avenues I’m already on.

No comments: