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Thursday, October 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 42.0° F  Fair
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Madison cops bust drivers for violating pedestrians' crosswalk rights
'You stopped me for that?'
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Credit:Bill Lueders

A remarkable thing happened around 5 p.m. this Monday at the intersection of Webster and Main Streets, on the outer ring of the Capitol Square. Three lanes of heavy traffic uncharacteristically slowed to a halt when pedestrians appeared on either side of the crosswalk.

"Wow, that stepped-up enforcement is really working," one pedestrian said to another, a stranger, as their paths crossed in the middle of the street.

"I know," the other pedestrian responded. "Isn't it great!"

The Madison Police Department has launched a new pedestrian safety enforcement operation, funded in part by a federal grant. Last week Tuesday, the cops spent part of the day issuing warnings to drivers who failed to yield to an officer pedestrian at South Fairchild and West Main Streets, where a new sign calls attention to the crosswalk.

That operation - and news that the cops would soon be writing actual citations - prompted an article in the Wisconsin State Journal and a favorable editorial from Neil Heinen on WISC-TV.

This week, on Tuesday morning, the MPD's Traffic Enforcement Safety Team (TEST) followed through with an operation at 4th and East Johnson, right by East High. In just under five hours, it made 50 stops, more than any previous pedestrian safety enforcement operation.

An Isthmus reporter was along for the first two hours, in the company of Sgt. Eric Tripke, the team leader. Eventually, a half-dozen officers in squads and on motorcycles gathered to pull over drivers who failed to yield to police officer Bill Brendel, as he walked back and forth in the crosswalk.

At some times, East Johnson looked like a crime scene, with three or four police vehicles at once parked with flashing lights by stopped vehicles. A few drivers drew verbal warnings, but most got $145.50 citations, which included a loss of four points on their license.

Tripke says the East High location was chosen because the department has gotten "a number of complaints from parents and the school." Area Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway agrees there's a problem, as drivers go too fast and fail to yield to pedestrians. But, she also notes, "the students aren't particularly good at using the crosswalk."

It's likely, says Tripke, that pedestrians will be the target of some future operations. But today, the focus is on drivers, which makes sense to him: "If a pedestrian gets hit, right or wrong, the car's always going to win."

For Tripke, a Madison police officer for nearly 24 years and head of the TEST unit since the fall of 2008, it's an issue that affects not just safety but quality of life.

"Sometimes," he says, "it's crazy trying to get across the darn street. People are in a hurry, maybe talking on their cell phones, or they're holier-than-thou and think they shouldn't have to stop for pedestrians.

"Madison," he concludes, "is a medium-sized city with big-city driving habits."

Ald. Rhodes-Conway seconds that: "There are some places in the country where if a pedestrian steps into the crosswalk, cars screech to a halt. We don't have that culture in Madison."

The operation begins at 7:30 a.m. Officer Derrick Jones has set up orange traffic cones in the road on either side of the crosswalk, 138 feet from the nearest line. This creates a "buffer zone" based on the estimated safe stopping distance for a vehicle traveling 30 mph, five miles over the posted limit.

"So anybody who's going 25 mph like they should be has more than enough time to stop and brake for pedestrians," says Jones.

On occasion, Jones serves these operations as the "duck" - the officer who crosses the street. This even after he was hit and injured by a car last September, while crossing a downtown street. He was off-duty at the time, but cannot avoid the obvious jibe: The duck was struck.

"He was a little apprehensive about [continuing in this role] for a while there," says Tripke.

"Who's first?" asks one of the motorcycle cops, as the police vehicles are lined up in a queue in a small parking lot by the crosswalk. Tripke takes the honor.

Officer Brendel waits at the curb until a car nears the traffic cone, then starts his trek across the street. As violators will be told all morning, with a $145 reminder, oncoming cars must stop so as not to impede his crossing.

At 7:45, a white GMC Yukon drives through the crosswalk after Brendel starts crossing. Tripke turns on his lights, flips on an in-squad video recorder and pulls the vehicle over. He gets the driver's license and asks if she knows why she was stopped. She doesn't, and when Tripke explains, she gives him a look he interprets as, "You stopped me for that?"

Tripke is amazed at how often drivers don't seem to know the law in this regard. It's one of the reasons the team does what it does. Every stopped driver gets a talk about the need to yield to pedestrians once they enter a crosswalk, and each is given a pamphlet that explains this some more. Says Tripke, "I want people to understand what their responsibilities are."

Ald. Rhodes-Conway is ambivalent about pedestrian-safety enforcement operations. She's heard that they prompt mostly temporary changes in behavior, as word spreads that citations are being issued, but then people go back to their old bad behaviors. She thinks a better way to achieve long-term fixes is through infrastructure.

"I would agree with that," says Tripke, who supports radar signs that tell people how fast they're going, signs that flag pedestrian crossings (like those that went up on Fairchild and Main), and curbside "bumpouts" that make it easier to see when pedestrians start to cross. He views the city's traffic engineers as partners: "They're working hard at making improvements."

The reactions of cited drivers run the gamut. Tripke lets the reporter listen in as he talks to drivers and even interview them when he's back in his squad, writing citations. Many use the term "setup."

"It was a setup," insists Bob, the driver of a Ford F150 pulled over just past 8 a.m. "All he [Officer Brendel] did was step off the curb and stop. Had he kept walking across I would have stopped."

Would have, could have, should have, ticket.

Tripke, who hears Bob voice the same complaint, says he's "trying to minimize the violation." Bob is told, like everyone, of his right to contest the citation in court. He gets a pamphlet explaining this too.

At about 8:30 Tripke pulls over Andrew Kreuser, 21, a UW-Madison student majoring in history, who proceeded through the crosswalk when the pedestrian stopped walking, not knowing this was wrong.

"I made a judgment call, and apparently it was the wrong call," Kreuser tells the reporter. "Next time I'll be more careful." He understands the need for enforcement: "I have a friend who got hit by a car on his bike."

Moments later, Tripke encounters the other end of the reaction spectrum, when he pulls over a Lexus with Florida plates. The driver, Jane, protests bitterly, asserting her excellent driving record and second-to-none affinity for pedestrians. She denies putting anyone in danger. "I appreciate your opinion," Tripke replies.

Jane is similarly defiant in her comments to the reporter. "I did nothing wrong. This is a setup, and it's inappropriate," she says. "Madison must have some need to raise funds."

When Tripke returns with her ticket, Jane complains that her attention was distracted from the pedestrian by the sight of Officer Jones sitting on the sidewalk in full uniform. "I'll make a note of that in my narrative on the citation," says Tripke.

As he is doing so, Jane exits her Lexus and approaches, saying her battery has died and she needs a jumpstart. Tripke is unable to help.

But as he drives to the parking lot to get back into the queue, Tripke is able to do another citizen a good turn. A young woman with a dog starts to cross East Johnson. Tripke, who probably could have made it through, stops. The woman smiles at him and says, "Thanks."

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