Summit in Delaware focuses on addressing pedestrian safety concern

Pedestrian Crossing (<a href=Eugene Sergeev/Bigstock.com)" title="pedcrossing16x9" width="640" height="360"/>

Pedestrian Crossing (Eugene Sergeev/Bigstock.com)

Transportation leaders met in Dover on Thursday to address the growing concern of pedestrian safety.

A few weeks ago, a 14-year-old George Read Middle School student was killed while attempting to cross DuPont Highway (Route 13) in New Castle, reportedly while on the way home from school. 

The young boy is one of seven individuals who have been killed by vehicles in Delaware this year so far.

Last year, the state faced 36 pedestrian fatalities—up from 2014’s 27 and an increase of 140 percent since 2009.

On Thursday, leaders in the transportation industry spoke about the issue at the 5th Annual Walkable Bikeable Delaware Summit at Legislative Mall in Dover.

“That is completely unacceptable,” Secretary of the Delaware Department of Transportation Jenifer Cohan said. “I get a lump in my throat. It makes me sick. We have to do better.”

The secretary and Gov. Jack Markell, D-Delaware, kicked off the day-long event, which focused heavily on pedestrian safety issues, what the state is doing to address it and what still needs to be accomplished to reduce the numbers.

Engineers, planners, community leaders, pedestrian safety advocates, public health professionals, cyclists and advocates also attended the event.

Past summits have celebrated Delaware’s advance in the national Bicycle Friendly State rankings.

Nationally, while vehicle fatalities have declined, pedestrian fatalities are up 19 percent since 2009, according to the Office of Highway Safety. In addition, 26 states and Washington D.C. reported an increase in 2015, including Delaware, the agency reports. In Delaware, there have been 119 fatalities since 2012, according to OHS.

In 2015, almost half of the 36 fatal pedestrian accidents occurred between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m., and 79 percent were in dark conditions, OHS reports. Only 13 percent of the individuals killed were at intersections, and 26 of the 36 were under the influence of alcohol or drugs, according to the agency.

Data shows 96 percent of the accidents were the pedestrian’s fault and 94 percent of those were not inside a crosswalk at the time of the crash, OHS reports.

“It’s at a crisis level almost, and it’s not just Delaware, it’s a national conversation people are having and we’re hoping to find ways to lower that rate or not exist at all,” Lisa Flowers, community relations officer for OHS said.

Last year, Delaware began several initiatives to reduce the numbers. Along with police agencies, OHS began an education and enforcement campaign to inform pedestrians on how to walk safely.

Markell also announced an executive order to create an Advisory Council on Walkability and Pedestrian Awareness to make recommendations on how to address pedestrian safety issues.

“There are people who don’t’ have two cars because they can’t afford two cars, and they have to traverse in the community safely,” Jonathan Kirch, co-chair of the Council said during the summit.

“I believe it’s our responsibility to…offer serious recommendations on how to change the course we’re on.”

Richard Klepner, a data analyst for OHS, said there isn’t enough data on why accidents happen—some of the underlying causes may be missed. He said he believes that’s because until recently there was more attention on motorist safety than pedestrian safety.

“Why are pedestrian (accidents) increasing? What’s causing this to happen? And I don’t think a lot of states or any states have an answer to that question,” Klepner said.

During the summit OHS announced that next week it will launch a pedestrian survey, which the department hopes will help them better understand pedestrian violations and how to best address the issue.

The survey will ask participants if they walk along specific highways and why, how often they “jaywalk” and why, if they walk alone or in a group, what time of day they walk, how often do they use headphones and if they use proper safety measures, such as carrying a flash light or wearing reflective clothing.

“We have 80 percent of the pieces, but we are really missing the corner pieces of the puzzle, the most important ones that fit everything to this,” Klepner said. “Through this and through the survey and different types of outreach hopefully we can get those magic pieces that solve the problem.”

DOH said it’s launching more education campaigns at places like schools and universities, utilizing posters and billboards and plans to partner with more agencies. The agency also is working on social media outreach, and will launch its first Twitter chat on Tuesday.

Flowers said OHS is teaching pedestrians to use flashlights and reflective materials, utilize crosswalks and look both ways, and to not walk while intoxicated. OHS members also are talking about the possibility of education classes for adults who are given pedestrian citations.

“It’s not one team, or one agency, it’s a community conversation because it’s a community problem,” Flowers said.

Lt. Matt Cox of the Delaware State Police also spoke of the police department’s role in tackling the issue of pedestrian safety.

He said the number of pedestrians and drivers who violate traffic laws is much higher than the number of individuals who commit serious crimes, which means the police department cannot solve the pedestrian safety problem on their own.

“All types of people are committing these types of things,” Cox said. But he also said the police department has made significant progress.

Police are now using real-time data to deploy officers in the most needed locations to have the most productive police force. Officers are educating pedestrians on the streets, mailing information to houses in areas with the most pedestrian fatalities and addressing the topic at community meetings.

In November, the Delaware State Police began a high visibility enforcement campaign, which focused on a three-mile stretch in New Castle County for three weeks. For two weeks, officers educated pedestrians and handed out information, and incorporated enforcement during the last week.

OHS provided overtime funding for four-hour patrols Tuesday through Saturday between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m.

Cox said during this time officers had contacts with 189 pedestrians who were not using designated crosswalks, and issued 20 citations. He said the department hopes to receive more funding, create partnerships with other agencies and analyze more data.

DelDOT also announced several plans to improve pedestrian safety in the state. It has conducted a road safety audit, which is a multidisciplinary approach to a safety study, and has made short-and-long-term goals.

In the US 13 and 40 area, DelDOT plans to add sidewalks up and down the corridor, and it already has installed some crosswalks and signals, costing more than $1.5 million.

In the area of Route 7 and Kirkwood Highway the department has plans for increased lighting, a pedestrian hybrid beacon and warning signs in dangerous areas.

Another item on DelDOT’s wish list is building barriers at high speed corridors that would discourage pedestrians from crossing and funnel them to safer areas.

However, some of the changes that need to be made are attitudes about pedestrian safety, said Mark Luszcz, chief traffic engineer for DelDOT—and that’s where education comes in.

“Running a red light is not socially acceptable,” he said during the summit. “(But) jaywalking is just socially acceptable. No one questions if you jaywalk.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.