Durham school zones: Cross at your own risk

CorrespondentOctober 21, 2012 

  • What’s the law? At intersections with ordinary traffic signals: • Pedestrians must obey the same signals as drivers traveling in the same direction. • Pedestrians should not start to cross during a red or yellow signal. When crossing with a green signal, pedestrians have the right of way over all vehicles, including those turning across the paths of the pedestrians. • If a traffic signal changes to yellow or red while any pedestrian remains in the street, drivers must let the pedestrian complete the crossing safely. At intersections without traffic signals pedestrians have the right of way if they are in marked crosswalks or in unmarked crosswalks formed by imaginary lines extending from the sidewalks across the streets. At mid-block crosswalks with no traffic signal, drivers must yield the way to pedestrians in the crosswalk. If a driver is moving through an intersection with a green signal and a pedestrian starts to cross against the red signal, the diver should give a warning with the horn. The law requires drivers to use the horn whenever a pedestrian may be affected by a turn, stop or start from a parked position. If the pedestrian does not stop, the driver must. Source: N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles Driver’s Handbook

Last month 12-year-old Sophia Bradley stepped into the Gregson Street crosswalk at Minerva Avenue after a car stopped in the lane closest to her.

The Durham School of the Arts seventh-grader jogged between the two white lines on her way to cross-country practice on Duke’s East Campus when a driver coming from the other direction slammed on the breaks. The car struck Sophia in the right leg, sweeping her off her feet and causing her to hit her head.

“I was very frightened right after it happened, but I calmed down a lot when my coach came and my dad came,” Sophia said. An ambulance took her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with a concussion.

The Sept. 28 incident has heightened safety concerns in the Trinity Park neighborhood, which has DSA and George Watts Montessori Magnet Elementary School, as well as other school zones with busy streets.

A letter detailing near misses that school and neighborhood leaders sent to Police Chief Jose Lopez earlier this month had already been drafted before Sophia was hit. (Read it on our website at bit.ly/T0uuio)

“Every day, children from Durham School of the Arts, Watts Elementary, and numerous pedestrians take their lives into their hands to cross public streets such as Gregson, North Duke, Trinity and Buchanan,” the letter says. “The fact that they are crossing at clearly marked crosswalks does not alleviate the danger, as the speed limits are not enforced, and drivers are not stopping for pedestrians crosswalks as required by law.”

Neighbors want more traffic enforcement, more visible crosswalks, and signs explaining the laws and potential fines.

“Our message is people are getting hit, students are in danger,” said Rachel Raney, chair of the Trinity Park Traffic Committee. “We supposedly live in one of the most walkable, bikable urban neighborhoods. Yet we are crisscrossed by treacherous streets that are really hard to navigate as pedestrians or bicyclists.”

Few obey law

The UNC Highway Safety Research Center collected data on drivers complying with the pedestrian yield law in 12 areas in Raleigh and Durham. A crosswalk near DSA, at Gregson Street near Lamond Avenue, had the lowest yield rate with only 1 percent of drivers yielding, compared to 11 percent to 24 percent in other areas.

Durham police officers are “diligent in enforcing traffic laws in and around school zones by examining traffic volumes trends as well as statistical data,” Lt. Patrice Andrews told The Durham News in an email.

The Police Department has partnered with various state and university agencies in the “Watch For Me NC” campaign, which seeks to reduce the number of pedestrians hit by vehicles. The campaign is being piloted in Durham, Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Raleigh, with the goal of creating a statewide annual effort, said Dale McKeel, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. The education component – which included brochures, advertising and speaking engagements to inform pedestrians and drivers about the law – occurred in August and September, McKeel said. The enforcement component started this month.

DPD officers have conducted several checkpoints in areas with pedestrian and vehicle traffic, Andrews wrote. “We have handed out 500 fliers to motorists and pedestrians as well as issued 31 citations to drivers for ‘Failure to Yield to Pedestrian in a Crosswalk.’ Our officers have found that there are people – drivers and pedestrians alike – that are generally unaware of what they are supposed to do when approaching a crosswalk.”

(For the record, drivers should yield to pedestrians standing by or in a crosswalk, unless a traffic signal indicates otherwise, Andrews said.)

What’s been done

The traffic issue isn’t new. For decades Trinity Park residents have complained about traffic hazards. The city has instituted some traffic-calming measures, such as more crosswalks, flashing lights, signage and radar speed signs, particularly on Gregson and Duke streets.

Many of the signs and lights are obstructed by the trees, or use solar power and don’t work about one-third of the time, Raney said. One traffic-calming measure that bumped the sidewalk into the street a bit created a flooding issue and was removed, she said.

Meanwhile, residents report mixed results for the “Watch For Me NC” campaign. Raney said she has noticed more police, but longtime Trinity Park resident Berry McMurray said he wasn’t aware of the campaign and hasn’t seen a difference. Monday morning he was behind a school bus speeding through the 25 mph Watts elementary school zone on Gregson Street, he said.

McMurray complained to the Durham Public Schools’ transportation department, which assured him they would investigate the issue, he said.

McKeel said the campaign is just part of the solution.

“The Police Department has said that they do not see it as a one-month operation,” he said.

DSA PTA Vice President Rebecca Romaine, who has three children attending schools in the neighborhood, has been concerned for a while. Her frustration was exasperated Tuesday afternoon when she witnessed a group of moms and children in a crosswalk on Gregson around 3:45 p.m. The pedestrians, stranded by turning cars on Urban Avenue, started waving their hands and yelling at a driver of a Mercedes barreling toward them. The driver stopped his car and started yelling at the pedestrians.

“I think it is really going to come down to driver education,” she said. “It is just out of control.”

Bridges: 919-564-9330

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