Brad Johnson, a detective with the Coon Rapids police department, did a little acting last month.
Dressed in plainclothes, Johnson served as a “decoy pedestrian” at the crosswalk on Northdale Boulevard in front of Coon Rapids High School. It happens to be one of the city’s busiest crosswalks.
At this crossing and several others across Coon Rapids, drivers all too often fail to stop for pedestrians, even though state law says the walkers have the right-of-way, Johnson said.
Right now, pedestrian safety is a top priority for many cities across the state. In 2012, there were 40 pedestrian deaths in Minnesota, the same number as in 2011 — a marked increase over previous years, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). The department cites driver inattention as the biggest cause for pedestrian-related accidents.
To respond to the problem, MnDOT last year launched a marketing campaign with the slogan “Share the Road.”
A number of other cities are following suit with marketing campaigns of their own, or, as in Coon Rapids, educational initiatives.
Even some individual schools are taking action, like North View International Baccalaureate World School in Brooklyn Park.
This past spring, the school put together an educational video on the topic, which it showed to students during the school day. Also, as a part of its “Be Safe, Cross at the Crosswalk” campaign, the school mounted signs and banners on its entryway and gave out treats for using the crosswalk. The school took on the issue because “Many of our walking students are in the habit of unsafely crossing 69th directly outside our front doors,” the school’s Facebook page reads.
Many cities are also making improvements to crosswalks and stepping up enforcement of the state law.
For example, in downtown Anoka, a crosswalk on East Main Street between Second and Third Avenues has a pedestrian-activated system that even includes flashing lights that are embedded in the ground, according to Tim Cruikshank, the city manager of Anoka. The city was able to install the system as part of its Main Street reconstruction project last year.
“It’s pretty cool and it’s unique. I haven’t seen any others like it,” he said.
In the past, “People were crossing anyway without controlled methodology,” he said. But in places like East Main Street, “There’s so much traffic that we need to do it in the safest way possible,” he said.
An educational event
During the Coon Rapids event, to play the part of an ordinary pedestrian, Johnson simply walked across the crosswalk over and over within the course of an hour. Each time, he tried to outwardly convey to drivers his intention to cross the road.
Nearby, a patrol officer, Steve Beberg, watched the scene unfold from an unmarked police car. He was ready to pull over the drivers who didn’t yield to the undercover Johnson.
At one point, three cars in a row sped through the crosswalk. A dozen drivers altogether didn’t stop, and there was one near miss, where Johnson had to jump back.
Beberg didn’t cite anyone, but he did speak to drivers about the need to be mindful of pedestrians.
When asked why they didn’t stop, most drivers claimed that “they saw him but they didn’t think they had time to stop. A couple didn’t see him at all,” Beberg said.
However, in a 35 mile-per-hour zone like this one, “Any driver that sees things in the zone should be able to react to it,” he said.
He hopes the event helped “get people to pay attention and look further down the road than five feet ahead,” said Beberg.
Unfortunately, even when a crossing guard is on hand, “People tend to disregard her and drive through the crosswalk,” said Johnson, who is also the school’s police liaison.
Drivers need to “be aware of people in the crosswalks, and when they can and can’t continue to cross,” he said.
Sometimes, it comes down to a judgment call: “The driver has to make a decision about whether the pedestrian is crossing or standing at a bus stop.”
Pedestrians and bicyclists need to be watchful as well. “You can’t just go darting out in traffic and expect a car to stop,” Johnson said.
Johnson advises pedestrians to actively step into the crosswalk and then wait for cars to stop before they cross the street. “We don’t want them to start walking and then think ‘I have the right-of-way’ and then get struck by a car.”
The pedestrian also “needs to make an affirmative action showing he or she is trying to cross,” Beberg said. It’s good to make eye contact with a driver. And despite having the right of way, the pedestrian “has to be on the defensive and retreat if it doesn’t work,” he said.
Kelley Scott, the high school’s activities director, attested to the importance of vigilance in this crosswalk. Most of the school’s athletic facilities are across the way, along with student and faculty parking, “So our kids are using it all the time,” not just during the school day, he said.
Through the years, he’s worked with the county to bring attention to the crosswalk.
In talking to students about pedestrian safety, “Our mantra to the kids is, ‘yeah, it’s the law, but if you step out in front of a car, you’ll lose every time if they don’t stop.’ ”
“It would be nice to have a bridge or a tunnel,” Scott said, “but it’s pretty expensive.”
Other crossings of concern
Police Capt. John Hattstrom said the department has reviewed other crosswalks throughout the city. That has led to more signage, lights and stepped-up speed enforcement in recent years, he said.
For example, the city went so far as to install a permanent hand-operated pedestrian semaphore last year at one of its worst crossings, at Round Lake Boulevard and Wedgewood Drive. When activated by a push button, a light goes from yellow to red, signaling for drivers to stop. It starts flashing when it’s OK for drivers to continue, he said.
On a curving road where cars are going fast, “We had to do something obvious,” he said. “It’s one of the most expensive things we did to prevent tragedy.”
The system should get a driver’s attention, “though with cellphones and texting, that’s not a sure thing,” he said.
Similar but more affordable pedestrian-activated LED lights are being looked at for other city crosswalks.
Other problem crosswalks include Foley Boulevard at Goldenrod Street, where it intersects with Sand Creek Trail; Robinson Drive and 113th Avenue; and Crooked Lake Boulevard at Thorpe Park.
Beberg summed up the city’s efforts: “We want to keep it fresh in people’s minds,” he said. Maybe when school starts the department will do another educational event at the crosswalk on Northdale Boulevard.
“It’s not the first or the last time that we’ll do that,” he said.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.