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Macon-Bibb public health officials trying to prevent pedestrian fatalities

As a child, Chris Tsavatewa learned the hard way that in a collision between a person and a car, the person is almost always going to lose.

He was riding his scooter when he T-boned a moving truck, was thrown onto the front of the vehicle and landed face down on the concrete, breaking his collarbone.

“It was a silly childhood mistake,” Tsavatewa said. “I was engaging in risky behavior, and unfortunately risky behavior happens all the time when it comes to pedestrians and vehicles.”

Tsavatewa wants to change that. He is chairman of the Health Services Administration Program at Middle Georgia State College and serves on the Macon-Bibb County Board of Health, where he is working to shed light on pedestrian danger in Macon by thinking about it as a public health issue.

The local health department is pursuing a state grant to support education initiatives aimed at reducing pedestrian fatalities.

“We want to change and shift the actions of the community by promoting positive behaviors across the pedestrian, driver and environment stakeholders,” Tsavatewa said.

“It is a public health issue because it kills human beings,” said Nancy White, administrator for the Macon-Bibb County Health Department and a former Macon City Council member.

‘A WINNABLE BATTLE’

Pedestrian deaths are a relatively minor public health problem compared to the major causes of death. According to the Georgia Department of Health, 546 people died of heart disease in Macon-Bibb in 2013, while 10 were struck and killed by a car.

When asked why Macon-Bibb’s health department is choosing to focus on an issue that touches a relatively small number of people, White said, “We keep on reading it in the headline news, and it is getting attention.”

Tsavatewa said the fight against pedestrian hazards is “a winnable battle.”

Moreover, Tsavatewa said, reducing pedestrian danger has other benefits.

“When people feel safe, they’re more likely to engage in healthy behaviors,” such as walking outside, he said.

Tsavatewa’s assertion that individual behavioral changes can help fix the problem did not go over well with longtime Macon transportation activist Lee Martin, who contends pedestrians are too often blamed in accidents.

Martin was among community members who attended a meeting on pedestrian fatalities convened by the Center for Collaborative Journalism this year. “Discussion is a good thing, but what we need is action by our local officials,” Martin said.

“The city and sheriff want to investigate an intersection, which is reactive and not proactive,” Martin said. “Any transportation planner can look and pick out what needs to change in order to make an intersection more safe.”

Tsavatewa acknowledged the perception in the Macon community is that nothing is being done to fix the issue and that pedestrian safety is being ignored.

“We want to develop a comprehensive task force to create solid solutions,” Tsavatewa said. “Moving in this way and partnering with urban planning and others can create pedestrian harmony with bicycles and cars, which leads to overall better communities and community engagement.”

White said the health department is lucky to have Tsavatewa to give a new perspective on the issue.

“We don’t necessarily have all of the solutions quite yet,” White said, “but by illuminating and putting out the information, we can empower agencies that do have the tools” to impact change.

More and more communities are planning for sidewalks, good lighting and bike paths because there is now an increased awareness and emphasis on health, exercise and being outdoors, she said.

Tsavatewa and White said they think the best weapons right now are educational campaigns that can spread awareness throughout the community.

“Progress is very attainable,” White said. “We just have to be tenacious about it.”

EDUCATION IS THE KEY

Cpl. Austin Riley, the lead traffic fatality investigator for the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office, said most walkers think that when they are standing on the curb, a driver should yield to them. In fact, pedestrians only have the right of way in a crosswalk.

This is something that Violet Poe, owner of Right Start Defensive Driving School, has experienced firsthand. At the community meeting on pedestrian fatalities, Poe said she’s been running an informal experiment outside her office on First Street in downtown Macon.

“I notice a lot of pedestrians outside my window who cross the street not in a crosswalk,” Poe said. “I go outside and ask them questions such as ‘What is the reason for crossing here?’ and ‘Are you aware that the crosswalks are close, and they are here for your safety?’ ”

Poe said most of the responses she gets are the same, and that people claim they did not see the crosswalks or they are unfamiliar with the use of crosswalks because the neighborhoods they live in don’t have them.

“We need to educate and find ways to assist these people to get them to start thinking safely,” said Poe, who in June was named one of two community representatives on Macon-Bibb’s newly created Pedestrian Safety Fatality Review Board.

One example of an educational pedestrian safety campaign is North Carolina’s “Watch For Me NC” program. Launched in 2012, the state program is aimed at helping local communities address pedestrian and bicycle crashes.

According to the campaign’s website, it focuses on two goals: dissemination of safety messages through outreach, and education and high-visibility enforcement of pedestrian, bicycle and motorist laws.

North Carolina law enforcement officers attended training courses on the best practices to uphold road laws, and about $221,000 was spent to market the campaign across the state in the first year.

Successful efforts elsewhere could be modeled in Macon, Tsavatewa said.

“We need to instill into the next generations the appropriate behaviors and patterns to establish community norms that make the road environment a safe place,” he said.

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