Accidents bring new emphasis on pedestrian safety

Southwest 62nd Boulevard crosswalk identified as trouble spot


Two pedestrians continue to cross Southwest 62nd Boulevard after a car, seen on the left, failed to yield for them on Tuesday in Gainesville.

Matt Stamey/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 4:53 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 at 1:01 a.m.

It didn't take long for Gainesville police to pull over 15 motorists for crosswalk violations one day last week on Southwest 62nd Boulevard — the sight of which had other drivers stopping at the crosswalk even when no one was in it.

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Two pedestrians continue to cross Southwest 62nd Boulevard after a car, seen on the left, failed to yield for them on Tuesday in Gainesville.

Matt Stamey/The Gainesville Sun

The sudden attention by motorists to pedestrians at the crosswalk just north of 20th Avenue came too late for two young adults who were hit by a driver Feb. 12. But police used the accident to drive home education and enforcement for crosswalks, while two Gainesville city commissioners are asking for increased action at that particular crosswalk and for pedestrian safety in general.

"I cannot fathom what more needs to happen before we do something about this," Commissioner Todd Chase said in an email to City Manager Russ Blackburn. "At some point, someone MUST be held accountable, so for me I am holding myself accountable as a commissioner and I do not want to attend someone's funeral and explain to their family that well, we were trying to figure out what we could do about it."

Deidre Messner, 18, and Zachary Lash, 21, were crossing from west to east when they were hit by a van driven by Andrew Virgil, 28. Virgil was charged with failure to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk.

Police said Messner and Lash were taken to the hospital for injuries that included broken bones.

Police said several other pedestrian/car accidents have happened since December in that particular crosswalk and in other spots along 62nd Boulevard, which is lined with apartment complexes, medical facilities, an elementary school and The Oaks Mall.

The accidents there and at other spots prompted the Gainesville Police Department to launch the Pedestrian High Visibility Enforcement Program. It includes greater enforcement at crosswalks in which police watch for violators or act as decoys to step into crosswalks to see if motorists follow the law.

A Jan. 28 enforcement detail at the 62nd Boulevard crosswalk netted 53 violators.

GPD Sgt. Joe Raulerson, who heads the traffic unit, said the city has placed message signs in the area reminding motorists to yield to pedestrians. Three accidents have happened there since December, he added.

Raulerson said most of the problems are on roads with apartments full of college students, including 62nd Boulevard, Southwest 20th Avenue and Old Archer Road.

While drivers have a responsibility to stop for pedestrians, Raulerson said pedestrians need to make good decisions when deciding to step into a crosswalk, including while crossing a street after a bus has left and giving motorists enough time to safely stop.

"We have between two and three crashes a week involving a pedestrian, and bicyclists are about the same," Raulerson said. "Obviously, cars and vehicles need to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, but you have to cross knowing that the car has the ability to stop in time if you step in front of the car."

GPD has for several years been stepping up a public education and enforcement campaign for crosswalk safety. The work was done as part of a study funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Previously, about 30 percent of drivers yielded to pedestrians. During the study, that rate increased to 80 percent.

In 2012, Gainesville had 89 accidents involving pedestrians, a drop from 124 in 2011 and 142 in 2010.

Many of the pedestrians who use the 62nd Boulevard crosswalk are Regional Transit System bus riders and must cross the road to get to and from bus stops.

Watching police ticket motorists Thursday, crosswalk users said drivers often do not yield but added that many people crossing the street fail to use the crosswalk.

Carol Movschowitz said she was almost hit by a driver while in the crosswalk.

"It was dark. I was crossing with four other students, and a car just came straight speeding. She saw me and curved. I was like, whoa. I didn't even know what to do," Movschowitz said. "It is pretty dark at night. I think there should be more light. The drivers need to be more careful."

Daniel Vaca, another UF student, said pedestrians often are on their cellphones and hardly paying attention to traffic when they step into the road. He said it is not uncommon to see people not using the crosswalk even though it is near the bus stop.

After last week's accident, Chase demanded immediate attention at the intersection — flashing signs, a parked police car with flashing lights, educational efforts by RTS.

But Commissioner Thomas Hawkins is taking a more long-term approach. Hawkins recently made a presentation to the commission in which he called for more funding for infrastructure, enforcement and education.

"Despite the fact that we have identified this as a policy initiative, we don't match it with funding investment. At some level, you have to put your money where your mouth is," Hawkins said. "Enforcement is really important. The second thing is pavement markings and signage. We can make up a lot of ground relatively affordably with markings and signage."

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