Tens of thousands of pedestrians walk along Chapel Hill roads each day, most without thinking twice about their safety.
Between 1997 and 2005, only six pedestrians died in Chapel Hill. But in a four-day stretch, Jan 23-26, two pedestrians and a bicyclist were killed and another two pedestrians were injured.
The injury accidents occurred on Franklin Street and Country Club Road. The three fatalities all occurred off campus. Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy thinks three deaths in as many days signals a big problem.
“We have persuaded people to walk,” Foy said. “More people walk, more people take the bus, more people ride their bikes. And our infrastructure to accommodate them lags. So I think that, unfortunately, it’s a bad sign.”
None of the drivers in any of the accidents was charged – police say they weren’t at fault.
As a result, both the Chapel Hill Police Department and the University’s Department of Public Safety are stepping up efforts to educate pedestrians and drivers on how to safely share the road.
The DPS rolled out a pedestrian safety campaign about two weeks before the rash of accidents occurred. But spokesman Randy Young said the deaths added steam to its efforts.
“Until this time, the focus has primarily been on motorists, from an enforcement point of view,” Young said. “But now we’re focusing on pedestrian activity that impedes traffic.”
As part of the campaign, DPS officers spent two weeks verbally warning jaywalkers and another two weeks handing them written warnings. During the span, officers gave out 640 verbal warnings and issued more than 80 written warnings. On Feb. 13, the department began issuing $135 citations to violators.
Chapel Hill Police spokeswoman Jane Cousins said that the department has increased its patrols at intersections that see heavy pedestrian and motor vehicle traffic and that officers have been cracking down on speeding on roads such as Franklin Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (the former Airport Road).
But Foy said if the town is to see marked improvements in the area of pedestrian safety, it will need help from the N.C. Department of Transportation.
The state owns most of the major thoroughfares in and around Chapel Hill, Franklin Street and U.S. 15-501 included. So approval for any requested safety improvements – such as crosswalks, walk signals and pedestrian bridges – along such roads must come from the state.
“There are many things on which we disagree, and philosophically, one of the things that [the town has] a greater emphasis on is pedestrian and bicycle transportation,” Foy said. “So there’s a conflict there. And you can see who’s winning.”
UNC Professor Emeritus David Galinsky, 71, was killed on Jan. 25 while trying to cross six lanes of traffic in the intersection of Manning Drive and U.S. 15-501 on his way to a UNC basketball game. There is no crosswalk at the intersection, and Galinsky was struck before he made it half way.
The town petitioned the DOT for a crosswalk at that intersection in 2000, but the DOT denied the request. Foy said he hopes to see a pedestrian overpass installed there. DOT engineer Vance Barham said that the state does everything it can to protect pedestrians in and around Chapel Hill and that his agency considers Chapel Hill a special case.
“Pedestrians and bicyclists are a higher priority [than motor vehicles] in our decision-making of what needs to be done, particularly in areas like Chapel Hill and Carrboro, or any university or school setting,” Barham said.
Still, Foy said he thinks both the town and the state could do more and expects the DOT to revisit the town’s request for crosswalks at the 15-501-Manning Drive intersection once it concludes its investigations into the pedestrian deaths.