Pushing a stroller with her grandson inside, Molly Kleven stepped into the intersection at Oxford Street and Grand Avenue in St. Paul on Tuesday. She quickly hopped back onto the curb as a car rolled up to the busy corner, the driver seemingly unaware of her presence.
At the last instant, the driver saw Kleven, stopped and backed up, allowing her to cross the street safely.
This close call had a happy ending, but others have not. Over the past two years, 302 pedestrians have been hit at intersections in St. Paul, according to the city's Public Works Department.
Now a pilot project is taking a cue from school crossing guards in the latest attempt to protect pedestrians.
People crossing the street at five uncontrolled intersections on Grand Avenue can carry bright orange flags to get the attention of motorists. Pedestrians take a flag, wave themselves across the street, then deposit the flag in the container on the other side.
The effort, sponsored by the Summit Hill Association, comes as St. Paul holds its first citywide Pedestrian Awareness campaign this week.
"It's the best idea in the world," said Kleven, who frequently walks along Grand Avenue. "The streets are so busy and a lot of people don't stop."
Beyond the crossing flags, this week St. Paul police are camped out at several high-traffic intersections throughout the city, watching for drivers who violate state crosswalk laws, said police department spokesman Sgt. Paul Paulos.
State law requires motorists to yield the right of way to a pedestrian in a marked crosswalk or at an intersection with no marked crosswalk.
"Today people have so many distractions, talking on cellphones or just having a bad day, and they don't take time to notice that there is a pedestrian," he said. "They are unfocused. It's clear and evident that drivers don't follow the pedestrian laws, and for those who violate there is a high probability they will be cited."
Pedestrian safety became a hot-button issue in St. Paul earlier this year when two Macalester College students were hit May 27 while trying to cross Snelling Avenue at Lincoln Avenue. In the past three years, two Macalester staff members and a few neighbors have been also been hit there. In 2012, a 19-year-old foreign exchange student, Cleo Thiberge, was struck and killed in a crosswalk near campus at Grand and Hamline Avenues.
Tom Welna, director of Macalester's philanthropic High Winds Foundation, put crossing flags at the intersection of Lincoln and Snelling in May. He said they have made a difference.
"Motorists stop more often than they used to," he said.
Welna said this week that he has gotten permission from the Minnesota Department of Transportation to install pedestrian-activated flashers at Lincoln and Snelling, but the foundation will have to foot the $12,000 to $20,000 bill.
Statewide, 35 pedestrians were killed and 867 injured in 2013, and 369 have been killed since 2004, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. In St. Paul, the intersection of Snelling and University Avenues had the most crashes involving pedestrians, followed by Dale Street and University, and University and Rice Street.
In response to the Grand Avenue incidents, Sara Schmidt of the Summit Hill Association's pedestrian safety committee said the neighborhood has been promoting pedestrian safety for the past few years. This year the association teamed up with the city's district councils and neighborhood groups to hatch this week's citywide effort. St. Paul Walks, a pedestrian safety group, also was involved.
"It's not just a neighborhood issue," she said. "It's more important than ever to get that message across to drivers and pedestrians alike."
Will they work?
The Grand Avenue Business Association donated $1,000 for crossing flags at uncontrolled intersections at Syndicate, Dunlap, Oxford, Milton and Avon streets.
On Tuesday, few people were using the flags at Grand and Oxford, where two people have been hit in the past two years.
College student Maerin Coughlin said she didn't realize what they were for.
"I'd rather have a water balloon to throw at them [motorists who don't stop]," joked Jason Pass, who works on Grand Avenue. He said that he could not see himself using the flags but he applauds the association's efforts. "I'm still upright. I'll take my chances, but something needed to be done."
Crosswalk flags are not new. About 10 years ago, St. Paul provided flags to neighborhood groups that wanted them. But interest waned and the program was phased out, said Kari Spreeman, a city spokeswoman.
Flag programs have succeeded in Madison, Wis., where 50 flag sites are up and running, according to the National Safety Council. Local and national studies say motorists yield to pedestrians who use the flags about 70 percent of the time — compared to 20 percent without them, the council said.
Seattle scrapped its program after finding that the flags made pedestrians more visible, but didn't consistently improve motorists' behavior.
"We don't want to create a false sense of security," Schmidt said. "This is cost effective and something we can do for the whole neighborhood. If it's successful, we hope to take it citywide."