Risky behavior fuels Capital Blvd. crashes

jshaffer@newsobserver.comApril 11, 2012 

— On Capital Boulevard, pedestrians dart like scared rabbits across 10 lanes of traffic – dodging cars, pausing in the middle, sprinting to the curb.

They don’t have to. In just the last month, Raleigh upgraded its crosswalks at Capital’s busiest intersections, adding islands in the center along with signs that explain how to wait for the 32-second safety countdown.

Still, the 5-mile stretch between I-440 and I-540 keeps its reputation as Raleigh’s most dangerous place to cross the street. No other major street in Raleigh has been as hazardous to pedestrians as Capital, according to traffic statistics. In the last five years, passing cars on Capital have killed two pedestrians and injured 16 more, including 18-year-old Kyle Haskins, who remains at WakeMed in critical condition after being struck about 11:30 a.m. on Saturday. The driver who hit him was not charged.

Haskins’ injury highlights an uncomfortable truth: The city cannot prevent these collisions. Haskins could have used the upgraded crosswalk, but police say he didn’t. Instead, he ran across about 40 feet north of the intersection, stepping into the road while the oncoming traffic had a green light. Stand at the intersection where it happened and you’ll see this behavior repeated at least twice an hour.

“You can’t engineer [against] bad judgment,” said Mike Kennon, Raleigh’s transportation operations manager. “We feel like we’ve done all we can.”

Raleigh does not enjoy the status of a great city to travel by foot. The walkscore.com ranks it 36th for pedestrian friendliness out of the nation’s 50 largest cities – behind Atlanta, Los Angeles and Tulsa, Okla.

A 2010 report from the UNC Highway Safety Research Center showed Raleigh with 903 pedestrian crashes between 2004 and 2008, second-highest in the state behind Charlotte. But its crash rate ranks low among the largest cities: 4.8 per 10,000 people, well behind Charlotte at 5.3, Rocky Mount at 6.1 and Asheville at 6.6.

The stretch between Raleigh’s Beltline and Outer Loop doesn’t look like a spot where anybody would want to walk. More than 70,000 cars pass each day, said transportation director Eric Lamb. Even though the city has worked to add sidewalks along the busy parts of Capital, gaps remain.

Lamb called Capital the biggest problem for pedestrian crashes. Hillsborough Street next to N.C. State University’s campus used to rival Capital for struck pedestrians, but recent upgrades slimmed the number of travel lanes and added a median, reducing collisions. In some places, such as outside Cary High School in Cary, sidewalks have been blocked by fences to corral walkers.

Bus routes explain why so many people walk on Capital. CAT’s No. 1 bus runs from downtown to Triangle Town Center, and passengers line the street waiting, many of them walking from low-income housing where car travel isn’t an option. If you ride the bus to and from work, you’ve got to cross Capital on foot.

David Branch, 24, walks up Brentwood to catch the bus to N.C. State University, keeping his eyes open even when he has a walk signal.

“Usually, you’ve still got the right-turn people to deal with, and they’re not watching,” he said. “So you’ve got to pay attention.”

Human nature can defeat safety precautions. No matter what cities install, it’s a challenge to get pedestrians to use safety features. For instance, Lamb said, cities install pedestrian walkways over busy roads only to have people cross the road directly rather than climb the stairs.

People get frustrated when signal buttons don’t give any feedback, Lamb said. The evidence of their impatience is clear from the litter tossed nearby: an orange peel, a chicken bone, some dental floss.

At Brentwood, a large man who gave his name only as “Tiny” hit the silver signal button repeatedly, then walked into traffic and dodged cars when the red walk sign didn’t immediately change to white. When he reached safely, he complained that the devices didn’t work, calling them “placebo buttons.”

He challenged a reporter to time how long it would take to press the button and receive a walk signal, predicting an eternity. The results after three tries crossing 10 lanes at Capital: 1 minute, 1: 40 and 1:15.

With cars roaring past, waiting for a minute can seem like a day, making reckless sprints seem tempting. But impatience can cost a lifetime.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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