Orange County

Chapel Hill hopes push-button flashing lights will keep pedestrians safe

UNC-CH public safety bicycle officer B. Detweiler watches pedestrians cross East Franklin Street at Columbia Street in downtown Chapel Hill last month.
UNC-CH public safety bicycle officer B. Detweiler watches pedestrians cross East Franklin Street at Columbia Street in downtown Chapel Hill last month. hlynch@newsobserver.com

In the town’s latest effort to persuade more drivers to stop for people walking across the street, Chapel Hill is replacing the perpetually blinking lights on midblock crosswalks with new, bigger lights that will flash only when activated by pedestrians.

The push-button flashers are being installed at four crosswalks on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and one on East Franklin Street. The amber lights are located in the middle of the street and at the right-hand curb for drivers traveling in both directions.

“Now, somebody crossing will push a button to activate the flashing lights,” said Kumar Neppalli, town traffic engineer. “They will have enough time to walk all the way across, and the light will be blinking throughout that time.”

Town residents received another reminder that they can’t always count on drivers to stop for pedestrians after a man was hit in a crosswalk on Franklin Street on Thursday where the new flashing lights have not yet been installed.

Police said Scott Imura, 21, of Chapel Hill was in the crosswalk when he was struck by a 2007 Honda Odyssey Minivan driven by Courtney Ritter, 42, of Pittsboro.

Imura was taken to UNC Hospitals with minor injuries. Ritter was charged with failure to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk and failure to reduce speed to avoid a crash.

The town has push-button signals at some intersections, where pedestrians can change traffic lights from red to green. But these mid-block crosswalks don’t have traffic signals.

The new push-button flashers replace smaller LED lights that were located only at the center of the street – and blinking all the time, whether or not there was someone waiting to cross the street. The flashers are intended to make the driver more likely to notice the pedestrian, who has the right of way under state law.

It’s the latest in a series of measures aimed at improving pedestrian safety. These mid-block crosswalks also include multiple warning signs and raised medians in the center lane, known as pedestrian refuges.

In 2005, the town experimented at busy intersections with bins that held bright orange flags that pedestrians could wave to get drivers’ attention. But the flags led some pedestrians to take risks, including walking against red lights.

Also this week, the town is painting street pavement with sharrows – bicycle symbols with twin chevrons – outlined in bright green boxes, as “share the road” reminders for cyclists and drivers on Ransom and Church streets.

Staff writer Tammy Grubb contributed.

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