Stepping up for safety

Pedestrians: Police launch a statewide effort to require motorists to stop for pedestrians at intersections.

March 28, 2002|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

In some cities, motorists know to expect glares and gestures when they don't stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. The person might be yards away. Perhaps his foot has just left the curb. Or maybe he is simply standing on a sidewalk waiting to cross.

It doesn't matter. At the first glimpse of a person near a rectangle of white stripes, drivers in places like Seattle and Northampton, Mass., are prone to hit the brakes.

Not in Baltimore, though, or in most Maryland towns. Here motorists and pedestrians navigate the streets in close proximity and often with equal disregard for each other.

"The general attitude here is that pedestrians are supposed to keep out of the road, and if they get hit, it's their fault," said George Branyan, special programs coordinator for the State Highway Administration.

But police are hoping a new crackdown will change the culture.

In coming weeks and months, motorists statewide will find themselves snared in crosswalk "stings" thanks to $180,000 in state highway funds, paying local police overtime to carry them out. Plainclothes officers will play pedestrians, and low-profile colleagues will nab the offending drivers.

Under Maryland law, vehicles must come to a stop for anyone trying to cross an intersection -- and stay stopped until the person is out of it. Violators must appear in court.

Statewide, more than 100 pedestrians are killed each year. That amounted to 16 percent of all traffic fatalities last year, compared with the national average of 11 percent. Between 1996 and 2000, an average of 20 pedestrians died each year in Baltimore City, 14 in Baltimore County, nine in Anne Arundel County, four in Howard County and 35 in Carroll County.

The majority are children, the elderly and intoxicated adults. So police plan to concentrate on streets near schools and senior citizen homes and centers, as well as high-risk intersections.

Last week, more than 75 officers from around the state sat through two days of training to prepare.

During a practice session at a busy intersection on West Street in Annapolis, police ticketed 16 drivers in an hour and could have stopped another 15 had enough officers been on hand to cite them.

A decade ago, drivers in Seattle didn't stop much for pedestrians, where fatalities averaged about 20 a year. Police had attempted to reduce the numbers through a vigorous campaign against jaywalkers. But it had little impact, and in some cases, their efforts turned ridiculous.

John Moffat, Washington state's traffic safety commissioner, recalls that as a 21-year-old Seattle policeman he was so vigilant he once ran after a jaywalker who fled to avoid a ticket. The chase continued down two city blocks, into a department store and up a flight of stairs, where Moffat made a flying tackle to capture his subject, knocking over a display.

"The fleet of foot aren't the ones getting hit," he told officers during the class in Annapolis last week.

The strategy in Seattle changed in 1991, triggered in part by a political cartoon in a local newspaper that ridiculed police with a drawing of four officers holding guns on a purse snatcher standing over his victim in the middle of a street.

"Freeze scuzzball -- Nobody jaywalks in this town," the caption read.

Traffic police decided to spend 20 percent of their time nabbing drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians. In the first year, fatalities dropped by half and the numbers have stayed down since then, Moffat said.

"Traffic laws that are not enforced are going to be ignored," he said.

That's what happened in Baltimore City, according to Sgt. David Brown, a city policeman.

Because the number of officers in the traffic enforcement unit has been cut significantly during the past 15 years, there has been little attention to the law, he said.

"Everybody feels they can do whatever they want, because they knew we weren't enforcing it," said Brown.

Their goal is the sort of culture change that occurred in Seattle, where the effort was strengthened by attention from the mayor and local hospitals.

Branyan said the effort is consistent not only with safety but with Smart Growth initiatives to create walkable communities.

"Unless pedestrians feel safe in a crosswalk, it's hard for us to assume they're going to go out of their way to use one," he said.

"We've seen a cultural change in the use of seat belts and child passenger seats, and it can happen with this, too."

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