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Peril in the crosswalk! It's open season on pedestrians in Madison
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Credit:Steve Weigl

The Wisconsin law is very specific: "Drivers must yield to pedestrians when crossing a sidewalk or entering an alley or driveway."

But on a recent Thursday afternoon at the intersection of Monroe and Harrison streets, pedestrians attempted to cross Monroe 30 times in a half-hour, and 37 motorists did not slow down or stop for them. Nine of the people on foot held one of those little red flags or waved at oncoming cars, and 17 vehicles, including one Madison Metro bus, did not yield for them either.

Randy Buchanan, a manager at Trader Joe's, was one of those who risked life and limb to cross at the busy corner that afternoon. A driver was looking to the left for inbound traffic while turning right onto Monroe Street and missed hitting Buchanan by only a couple of feet.

"When I moved to the Midwest from the L.A. area in 2006, I thought it would be a lot easier to cross the street in a place like Madison than it was in L.A.," Buchanan says. "But in L.A., drivers stop for pedestrians a lot more often than they do here."

In the wake of three car-pedestrian crashes between April 17 and April 26, residents in the area, who love being able to walk to the grocery store and library and the many small shops and restaurants that line Monroe Street, have been buzzing about how to make the street safer. Those who have traveled to or lived on the West Coast, where stopping for pedestrians is the norm, wonder why Madison drivers are so heedless about obeying the yield-to-pedestrians law.

"I really don't understand it," says Tom Huber, Dudgeon-Monroe Neighborhood Association president and former pedestrian/bicycle facilities coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. "I think people in Madison are very courteous in other kinds of interactions, but for some reason, you put a Wisconsinite behind the wheel and something is different."

Pedestrian safety is a longstanding concern on Monroe Street. The neighborhood association actively lobbied for additional traffic signals on the street several years ago, Huber notes, but people could not agree about where to place them. For a while, neighbors took to the street in pace cars festooned with "Drive 25" signs. The area is dotted with "slow down" yard signs, a project promoted by an injury-prevention organization, Safe Communities, and funded by American Family Insurance. But driver behavior and attitudes have been slow to change.

"I've heard people say, why don't people just walk to the nearest light to cross?" Huber says. "The problem is, it's five blocks to the light, and while I'm walking to that intersection, I'll probably see my bus pass me by."

While failure to yield to pedestrians is a problem throughout Madison and the state, the danger index this year on Monroe Street - a major commuter route connecting the downtown and UW-Madison to the far west side, Verona and Fitchburg - is even higher as commuters try to avoid construction on Fish Hatchery Road and University Avenue, according to Capt. Joe Balles of the Madison Police Department.

"Drivers get to that green space around Edgewood College, it looks like a straight shot, so they just gun it all the way to Trader Joe's," he says.

The danger cars pose to people on foot has been an issue since cars were invented. Establishing and marking crosswalks was one of the earliest attempts to improve pedestrian safety. But even years ago, some critics worried that crosswalks would simply give pedestrians a false sense of security and not improve their chances of getting across the street in one piece.

Madison's campaign to get drivers to yield to people on foot is nothing new either. Since the mid-1970s, the city has had a transportation plan intended to improve safety for both walkers and cyclists. That early plan included a recommendation for a full-time bike and pedestrian coordinator. In 1999, the police department created a team responsible for enforcing traffic laws, including the yield-to-pedestrians law. But most current drivers grew up being warned by parents and teachers to "look both ways before you cross the street," and that caution may still color their idea about whether cars or pedestrians rule the crosswalk.

Changing the driving culture will require a combination of education, both for drivers and pedestrians; enforcement; and engineering, says Cheryl Wittke, executive director of Safe Communities. The nonprofit organization has made pedestrian safety a high priority and is the source of the red flags at about 50 intersections around the city.

"I'm seeing some changes in driver behavior but not a lot," Wittke says. "It's taking a long time. We have yet to reach the tipping point, a critical mass of people doing the right thing."

The red flags are a low-cost and effective project, she says. The flag idea originated in Salt Lake City, which used to have the highest pedestrian fatality rate in the country. Wittke says the flags, combined with education for both drivers and walkers, resulted in a great improvement there.

But while they can help, the flags are not magic. In fact, one of the pedestrians struck on Monroe Street in April was carrying one. Arthur Ross, Madison's pedestrian-bicycle coordinator, says the flag is really just a communication device, a visible signal that you want to cross the street. But pedestrians should not assume drivers will stop just because they have a flag in hand.

"You have to make eye contact and be certain the driver has seen you," he says. "If there is more than one lane, you need to watch for a second car in that lane that may not stop or swerve around the car that stopped for you."

Ross believes that driver behavior will not change until attitudes change.

"If we want to eliminate or at least reduce the number of crashes involving pedestrians, we need to develop a social norm of being concerned about the safety of other people, not just our own personal convenience," Ross contends. "The attitude now is that drivers want free-flow conditions - nothing to slow them down. The attitude should be: I am driving a vehicle that can cause a lot of damage, so I need to make sure I take into account the safety of everyone outside my car."

Ross thinks part of the effort to change attitudes involves changing vocabulary. When a car hits a pedestrian, cyclist or another car, he says, it's not an "accident."

"Think about it. If it's just an 'accident,' I have no responsibility. There's nothing I could have done about it. If I have no guilt, I'm not going to change my behavior. But crashes are caused by human error, mistakes. Someone has run a red light, driven too fast for conditions, taken a risk that resulted in a crash."

But pedestrians play a role in safety too, says Becky Wheeler, who has been driving for Union Cab for about eight years. In that time she has seen a number of car-pedestrian crashes and a lot of close calls. As a professional driver, she believes that pedestrian safety in crosswalks is a two-way street.

"Sometimes a pedestrian charges out into the crosswalk from behind a line of parked cars, and I can't see them until it's too late for me to stop. When that happens and they look frustrated, I feel very apologetic, but there was no way I could stop, especially if there were cars right behind me."

She wishes more people would lead with the red flags instead of waving them overhead or just carrying them because it would give her extra time to see them.

Nighttime is the worst from Wheeler's perspective.

"People wear dark clothes. They get drunk and do stupid things. Some people seem to like to just stand in front of cabs."

One night at bar time she saw a driver from another cab company hit a drunk pedestrian who had run out into the street.

"It was really traumatic for the driver," she says. Spectators surrounded the pedestrian and offered help. "The driver felt terrible, but he was all alone."

Wheeler hopes people understand that she and other responsible drivers need a little help from pedestrians.

"We really don't want to hit anyone."

As Madison streets are reconstructed, traffic engineers have been making a number of changes designed to "calm" traffic and enhance pedestrian safety. Islands in the middle of a crosswalk give pedestrians a safe place to stand halfway across. Bump-outs narrow the street at crosswalks, leaving pedestrians less exposed. Crosswalk lines have been replaced with more visible white bars. Some crosswalks have been raised to the same level as the sidewalk, another visual cue for drivers that they are approaching a crosswalk.

Ross likes these improvements, but says they won't solve the problem.

"We need to change the attitude. We can't just engineer our way out of the problem," he says. "I also think we all need to be walking more. Drivers are more likely to stop in areas where there are lots of pedestrians. On University Avenue, near campus, they stop. On Park Street, where few people are walking, they don't."

In Madison, 20 of the 100 crashes from the beginning of the year until April 14 (the most recent date entered in the database) involved pedestrians, according to the Wisconsin Traffic and Operations Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's College of Engineering. Ten of these car-pedestrian crashes occurred at intersections.

One pedestrian was killed, but not at an intersection.

In 2011, 90 pedestrians were struck, 68 of those while at an intersection; four died as a result. That's too many, says Madison Police Sgt. Eric Tripke, who is not optimistic about quick progress on that front.

"I came on the [Traffic Enforcement Safety] team in 2008. Since then, I can't say I have seen any improvement in compliance with the law that drivers yield to pedestrians. We've had education projects and a lot of media attention, but drivers still don't yield. The way I look at it, Madison is a medium-size city with a big-city attitude about driving. Commuters are in too much of a hurry. They don't take the extra few minutes to slow down and respect pedestrians."

Tripke and his team have stepped up the number of pedestrian safety initiatives they run on Monroe Street since the three crashes in April. They choose an intersection and post several police cars on the side street ready to chase any driver who does not yield to the officer in plain clothes who crosses and recrosses the street. They call him "The Duck."

"The public will call it a sting and go as far as to call it entrapment, but we see it as pedestrian safety and driver education," says Tripke. "When we pull drivers over we talk to them about what the law is." And they issue a ticket for $145.50.

On May 17, the team gathered in the morning near Trader Joe's at the intersection of Monroe and Harrison streets. Six chase cars lurked on Harrison. An officer in uniform set up a lawn chair and readied his clipboard to record license plate numbers of scofflaws. At 8:30 a.m., Officer Bill Brendel, a big man wearing an orange T-shirt, took his first walk across Monroe Street in the crosswalk. Within minutes, a police car pulled out, lights flashing, to stop a driver who did not yield. The pace continued with about 10 tickets written in the first hour of this four-hour enforcement exercise. During the same hour, several pedestrians and at least 10 drivers called out to thank the officers. By the end of the morning, 23 drivers were cited. Tripke says this is fewer than the average of about 30 citations in four hours at this intersection, a dropoff he attributes to media coverage of the recent crashes.

Tripke says a third to a half who fail to yield say they did not see the pedestrian.

"Others say the wildest things. One woman said, 'I saw her standing there, and I was wondering to myself, what is that stupid girl doing in the street?" Another violator, when he saw how much the fine was, said, '$145! I should have just hit the guy." And I had one taxi driver who was outraged that we weren't writing more pedestrian tickets."

Tripke notes people riding bikes in the roadway are also required to stop for pedestrians, the same as they would if they were driving a car. Bikers in crosswalks, however, are considered pedestrians whether they are walking or riding their bikes.

In spite of more than 10 years of educational efforts, engineering changes and stepped-up enforcement, pedestrians continue to be at risk crossing in Madison as well as throughout the state.

Ross says that if there were unlimited resources, he could come up with an educational campaign that would focus on that attitude change he thinks is critical for changing drivers' behavior.

"I'd put signs on the back of buses," he says. "I would run PSAs and buy ads on every radio station during drive times. I'd make driver education programs put a lot more emphasis on the requirement for stopping for pedestrians. I'd organize neighborhood study groups. I'd spend as much on this campaign as Nike spends on selling shoes."

Based on his experiences teaching a class that drivers cited for failure-to-yield can take to reduce their fines, Ross thinks this kind of marketing and education campaign would be effective.

"One person in a class I taught recently said he would be far more aware of pedestrians in the future because of what he learned in the class."

But given the budget reality, Ross says the city, police and pedestrian advocates are doing all they can to make streets safer. And they still hope for a change in culture that will make Madison drivers behave like Californians. But how?

Rick Deal is a traffic engineer in Monterey, Calif., where drivers routinely stop for pedestrians who have not even stopped off the curb yet. Deal points to pedestrian-safety efforts his city has made, but they're similar to what Madison is doing: improved engineering, educational efforts and hefty fines for violations. So what accounts for the difference in attitude between Madison and Monterey drivers?

"I haven't the foggiest," Deal says.

Crossing the Street 101

Madison's pedestrian-bicycle coordinator Arthur Ross is a pro when it comes to crossing the street safely on foot. He took me for a little walk around the Capitol Square to teach me the skills, point out the risks pedestrians and drivers take, and show me some of the engineering fixes that can make intersections safer for pedestrians.

"Drivers will behave differently depending on the pedestrian's behavior," he explains. "The driver needs to know you want to cross, so where you stand, whether or not you hold up a flag or your hand, and whether or not you make eye contact will all make a difference."

To illustrate, Ross stepped off the curb at an intersection with no traffic light, raised his hand and looked directly at an oncoming car. The driver stopped and we crossed. On the other side of the street, another pedestrian who had been waiting on the curb while several cars whizzed past took advantage of Ross' success and crossed, too.

At the next intersection, there was a traffic light with walk and wait signals for pedestrians. Ross is not a fan of these pedestrian signals. He believes they benefit drivers, inconvenience people on foot, and don't make intersections any safer.

"A walk signal is not magic. It's not a force field. Drivers will run a red light, and often they will make a right turn on red even when a pedestrian is in the crosswalk with the walk signal."

Almost on cue, a car made a right turn on red while a man was crossing the street with the walk signal.

The wait signal started flashing, so we waited on the curb to cross, even though no cars were in sight.

"If there were no pedestrian signal here, we could have crossed the street 10 times by now," Ross says, after we finally got the walk signal.

Outside the Madison Children's Museum, Ross pointed out a raised crosswalk. There is no curb; instead, the crosswalk continues at the same elevation as the sidewalk. Ross says this is a cue for drivers, and they are more likely to see a pedestrian crossing the street.

Ross also pointed out several bump-outs where the street has been narrowed at the intersection so pedestrians' exposure to traffic is shorter. In several places, they also provide a spot for a pleasant outdoor café.

On our short stroll, we saw several pedestrians ignore wait signals, one person almost clipped by a car making a right turn, and numerous failures to yield by drivers.

Be careful! It's a dangerous world out there.

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