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Experts point to changes, devices that could help prevent pedestrian fatalities

A HAWK beacon is installed over a crosswalk.
A HAWK beacon is installed over a crosswalk. CITY OF BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA

Muchman Bond was driving along a heavily traveled stretch of Vineville Avenue at night when a figure appeared in front of his headlights.

Then he heard the impact.

The 68-year-old driver would soon discover that the “shadow,” as he and other drivers who witnessed the accident described it to police, that darted in front of Bond’s Mercury Mystic was 49-year-old James Kadian, who was crossing the street but not at a crosswalk. The nearest crosswalk was about 100 feet toward downtown at the intersection of Vineville and Ward Street.

Bond stopped his car and found Kadian on the sidewalk in front of House of Hines, a formalwear shop on Vineville. A bystander called 911.

Kadian died at The Medical Center of Central Georgia shortly after the accident April 16, 2011. His blood alcohol level was .24, three times the legal limit had he been operating a vehicle.

While individual behaviors often are the immediate cause of accidents, several traffic engineers interviewed said infrastructure improvements have helped cities across the nation reduce pedestrian fatalities.

Here are five ideas that experts say could help prevent accidents like the one that killed Kadian.

HAWK BEACONS

Busy roads with infrequent pedestrian crossings could possibly benefit from a traffic device called the High Intensity Activated Crosswalk beacon, or HAWK, which is used in some Atlanta suburbs, including Suwanee and DeKalb County.

The device is intended for use on arterial roads such as Vineville Avenue or Gray Highway where there are significant distances between intersections, offering fewer opportunities for pedestrians to cross safely.

The HAWK beacon creates a place where walkers can cross a busy road at an intersection that lacks a traffic signal or in the middle of a long road stretch with no intersections.

The beacon looms high in the air and is activated when a pedestrian presses a button located at street level. Once the button is pushed, a flashing yellow light signals to drivers to slow down.

The flashing yellow light is followed by a solid yellow light, then quickly by a solid red light, which requires drivers to stop. As the pedestrian crosses the street, the beacon flashes red, warning drivers that a pedestrian is crossing.

The Federal Highway Administration studied a handful of traffic intersections with HAWK beacons and compared data on vehicle-pedestrian crashes during the study period with data from three years prior to the HAWK installations.

The agency found a 69 percent reduction in vehicle-pedestrian crashes at intersections that used the HAWK beacon.

ROAD DIETS

Traffic engineers say roads have two speeds: the posted speed limit and the speed at which the road is actually designed to be driven. The latter is called the “design speed,” and drivers are apt to “feel” how fast the road should be driven, in contrast to the legal speed.

“It’s difficult, even with enforcement, to get the driver to go slower on a street or highway” designed for higher speeds, said Walter Kulash, a Florida-based traffic engineer who consulted on road expansion projects in Macon in the 1990s.

Kulash is a proponent of what he calls a “road diet,” in which the number of travel lanes and/or the width of the lanes is reduced so drivers don’t feel comfortable driving so fast.

For instance, a road diet might take the stretch of Vineville Avenue where Kadian died from four lanes to two travel lanes with a middle turn lane, and use the extra space to widen the sidewalks.

“This is not hocus-pocus,” said Washington-based traffic engineer Richard Retting, a former deputy commissioner for traffic safety programs for the New York City Department of Transportation. “We know this works and there has been empirical studies making it clear that road diets are effective (at reducing accidents).”

On low- to moderate-traffic roads, a road diet has little if any impact on traffic flow, Retting said. However, on very high-traffic roads, it could increase travel times for drivers.

“There could be consequences,” Retting said. “But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t consequences worth taking or considering. . . . Our goal is not only to move traffic as effectively and efficiently as possible, but (it) has to be done in a setting where people are safe and they feel safe.”

Retting has seen the success of such efforts up close in New York, which in 2014 had the lowest number of pedestrian fatalities since the city began keeping records a century ago, according to a statement from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office.

De Blasio has signed on to an international traffic safety program called Vision Zero, which is aimed at creating traffic systems with no serious injuries or fatalities. De Blasio hopes to eliminate all traffic deaths -- vehicle or pedestrian -- by 2024, according to his office.

Certain infrastructure solutions will only become effective when a road has been redesigned so that vehicles are less likely to reach high speeds, said traffic engineer Gary Toth, founder of the Future in Transportation Program, which assisted more than 50 communities in New Jersey with transportation planning from 2003-2007.

“A pedestrian-friendly roadway is one where the traffic speeds are calmed to the point where the crosswalks and flashing beacons become much more effective,” Toth said.

MODERN ROUNDABOUTS

Toth and Retting both endorse roundabouts as a way to keep drivers from speeding through intersections.

“Vehicle speed (reduction) has shown over decades to be highly effective in reducing not only the likelihood of the crash but also the severity of the crash,” Retting said.

Roundabouts force entering traffic to yield the right of way to vehicles in the circle. Drivers don’t have to stop, but they have no choice but to slow down.

Although roundabouts force slower driving, they can actually reduce travel times because drivers don’t usually have to stop for them as they would for a red light, Retting said.

Roundabouts are used heavily in Europe and Australia, and the trend is catching on in the United States as well.

In August 2014, Macon installed a roundabout at the corner of College and Oglethorpe streets. The $1.3 million project was built in an effort to relieve school congestion during afternoon pickup at Alexander II Elementary School. Roundabouts also have been built in Warner Robins and outside of Thomaston.

PEDESTRIAN FLAGS

Brenda Peek said she holds her breath whenever she watches senior citizens use crosswalks on Vineville Avenue.

“The speed out here is like a practice lap at Daytona (Motor Speedway) every single day,” Peek said. “Across the street (here) is senior living . . . and I just hold my breath while they are crossing.”

Peek lives close to the intersection of Holt and Vineville avenues and said she looks both ways before using the crosswalk because cars often run red lights. A HAWK beacon might help assuage Peek’s worries, but a much simpler and less expensive option could be the pedestrian flag.

Pedestrian flags are kept in buckets attached to traffic poles near crosswalks. A pedestrian picks up the bright orange flag and carries it while crossing the street in order to be more visible to drivers, then deposits the flag into a bucket on the other side of the road.

Athens-Clarke County recently concluded a six-month trial period with pedestrian flags at two intersections. Officials expect to report the results soon.

Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Elaine Lucas noticed them on a recent visit to Athens. She concedes the flags could be easily stolen, but she said the cost to replace them would be nominal.

“It’s just little simple things like that people have come up with because they’re concerned ... because they want to walk and feel safe,” Lucas said.

Law enforcement officials often point to dark colored clothing worn by victims as a contributing factor in accidents. Brightly colored flags could serve the same function as brightly colored clothing.

“The average person just doesn’t wear brightly colored clothing specifically for traffic safety purposes and is unlikely to,” Retting said.

LED STREETLIGHTS

The likelihood of getting killed in a crash is nearly three times greater during late-night/early-morning hours than during the day, according to a study from the Federal Highway Administration Office of Safety.

One of the tools available to traffic engineers to help make pedestrians more visible at night are LED streetlights, which are brighter and use less energy than conventional lights.

Installing this new lighting is costly up front but saves money in the long term, thanks to lower electricity costs, Retting said.

Lighting upgrades can be expensive, “(but) we have to factor in the cost-benefit,” Retting said. “If we prevent crashes, in some cases fatalities, the minimal cost of electricity, to me what I think is minimal, has to be compared to the high cost of life.”

Earlier this year, Georgia Power began a four-year project to convert government-owned streetlights in the state to LEDs at no cost to communities.

“We began Phase I installations in Abbeville and Atlanta in February,” Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft wrote in an email. “We then moved into Gray and Conyers. Work in Atlanta continues while we have also begun in Savannah, Augusta, DeKalb (County), and Valdosta.”

Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert has met with Georgia Power officials to discuss LED conversion, said his spokesman Chris Floore. However, Floore said, Macon-Bibb must first come up with a plan to integrate lighting systems in the former city limits with those in the former unincorporated areas.

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