OCEAN CITY -- Shaken by the death of an 8-year-old girl who was struck by a car on busy Coastal Highway while her young brother and sisters looked on, police in this resort town have taken to the streets to plead with vacationers to be more careful crossing the street.
Erin "Katie" Scott of Unadilla, N.Y. was the third tourist killed this year while crossing the highway that locals long ago dubbed "Six Lanes of Death."
In May, an 82-year-old man was struck at a pedestrian crosswalk; the driver who hit him was charged with driving while intoxicated. In early June, a 19-year-old woman left a local bar and stepped into the highway in midblock; the driver who hit her was not at fault, police said.
And in three separate accidents in the third week of July, five children were hit by cars as they tried to cross Coastal Highway. Four of the five were not gravely hurt.
But Katie Scott's death touched a nerve even among veteran police officers such as Capt. Jeff Kelchner, commander of the Ocean City Police Department's patrol division, who has seen plenty of tragedies in 23 years on the force.
"The family came down to the scene," Kelchner said. "There were relatives crying in the street. It was tough."
The entire Scott family -- parents, three daughters ages 11, 8 and 3, and a 1-year-old son --were in Ocean City that week for a talent contest, said Police Department spokesman Jay Hancock. The 11-year-old was on a team of competitors from Unadilla, and several families from the small town near Albany were vacationing together in an oceanside cluster of tourist apartments near 68th Street.
On the night of the accident, Katie's parents stayed in their condo while a 16-year-old baby-sitter took the children across Coastal Highway to a miniature golf course featuring green dinosaurs and a smoking volcano with an ice cream parlor next door. Heading home, pushing the 1-year-old in a stroller, the baby-sitter led the three girls to an "unmarked crosswalk" -- a low spot in the median, designated only by a square of waist-high wooden posts.
The unmarked crosswalks are common on the upper reaches of Coastal Highway, but they do not have street signs or painted lines on the pavement and many motorists don't know what they are, said Kelchner. "It's legal to cross there, but it isn't necessarily the safest place," he said.
Kelchner said Katie was holding her 3-year-old sister's hand when she was struck by a car in the fast lane. The driver, a 24-year-old woman who was not charged, couldn't see them because her view was blocked by a truck. Her sister was slightly injured.
"The children still had their ice cream cones in their hands," Hancock said. "They all saw the whole thing."
That night, Kelchner, Hancock and a sergeant from the traffic division huddled on the sidewalk. "We asked `What can we do right away to make it safer?'" Hancock said.
The next night and every night since, teams of three officers have patrolled Coastal Highway, writing $30 tickets to the most blatant jaywalkers and urging pedestrians to stick to marked crosswalks.
Local businesses have gotten into the act, posting signs calling for caution. The electronic billboard at the town's Convention Center reads, "Welcome to Ocean City. For Your Safety, Use Marked Crosswalks." On Tuesday, the City Council agreed to set up a pedestrian safety task force. Its members will be officially appointed Monday night.
At council meetings, in newspaper editorials and sidewalk conversations, ideas are flying: lower the highway's speed limit from 40 mph to 30; build pedestrian bridges over the road; run a chain-link fence down the median strip to discourage people from crossing in midblock; and eliminate the unmarked crosswalks or mark them with signs and paint.
Police say their patrols are a stopgap measure that will last at least through Labor Day.
"Let's face it, we can't be at all 150 intersections in the city," Kelchner said. "We can't be crossing guards. But we can make people aware that crossing Coastal Highway is not like crossing a country road."
On Tuesday night, Officers Chip Green, Denetria Norman and Joseph Dodson put in an extra three hours on pedestrian patrol. The officers stopped and admonished nearly 100 pedestrians at crosswalks, on sidewalks, in median strips and bus shelters.
"A lot of times alcohol plays a large part in the accidents here -- alcohol and just plain negligence on both parts, the pedestrians and the drivers," said Dodson. "People are on vacation, and they're just not paying attention to what they're doing."
In the shadow of the green dinosaurs at Old Pro Golf near 68th Street, Green boarded a packed city bus and asked riders to look to their left. In two terse sentences, he told how Katie Scott had died at that spot less than two weeks earlier.
Jean Schmalzer of Moorestown, Pa., filled in the details for her 11-year-old son, Jeffrey.
"My daughter lives on Fenwick Island, and she told us all about it," Schmalzer said. "We've been behaving ourselves. Even in a downpour, we'll walk two blocks to get to a crosswalk."
Most visitors were taken aback by Green's tale.
Krissy Schawl and Ronni Hunter, both age 20 and visiting from Indiana, Pa., clapped their hands over their mouths as Green explained why he'd stopped them for jaywalking.
"Oh my gosh, I had no idea," Schawl said. "I'll never do it again, I promise."
After Green let them go with a warning, Hunter turned to her friend. "We would be the ones stupid enough to cross while there's three police officers standing there," she said, rolling her eyes.