Pedestrian deaths rise sharply in Minnesota

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 9, 2012 - 11:52 PM

Distractions, inattentiveness blamed for deadly collisions. Other traffic-related deaths are declining.

Cléo Thiberge seemed to do everything right.

Before crossing Hamline Avenue in St. Paul, the 19-year-old waited. She watched traffic. And when the walk sign blinked on, she stepped off the curb.

That's when a vehicle rounding the corner struck the exchange student from France. She died on Sept. 2, a day after a couple was struck and killed in Ramsey.

The fatalities are part of a grim increase in pedestrian deaths in Minnesota this year -- already the deadliest of the last five years -- 23 pedestrians have been killed so far in 2012.

They include a 14-year-old girl from Onamia, fatally struck on Thursday night in Mille Lacs County. An Onamia funeral home identified her as Katelin Michele Sawyer, who moved to the area in 2005. An obituary described her as being active in volleyball, and said she loved fishing and was looking forward to getting her driver's license.

The toll last year at this time was 14. Yet with the resumption of school this month and the approach of October -- the deadliest month for pedestrians -- experts worry that there's no slowing the trend, especially with drivers and pedestrians alike more glued to smartphones and other devices.

"We owe it to ourselves, because we are all pedestrians, to talk about it and focus on it," said Gordy Pehrson of the Department of Public Safety. "There needs to be more awareness and enforcement."

Across the metro, police are ratcheting up crosswalk crackdowns, cities are installing more neon yellow crossing signs and engineers are shifting street design to consider pedestrians as well as motorists. The state is this month also launching its first pedestrian safety campaign in nearly 15 years.

Rule No. 1: Pay attention

After declining over the previous decade, pedestrian deaths in Minnesota have risen since 2008, now making up a higher proportion -- about 10 percent -- of overall traffic deaths. Other traffic-death causes such as drunken driving or not wearing seat belts continue to dip.

Last year, 857 Minnesota pedestrians were killed or injured, up by nearly 50 from the year before. In 35 percent of those cases, drivers failed to yield to pedestrians. The next biggest cause: distraction or inattention. About 20 deaths involved alcohol consumption on the part of the pedestrian or crossing without a crosswalk or a signal.

"I don't think people really understand what they're supposed to do" near a crosswalk, said Minnetonka Police Chief Mark Raquet. "... Common sense would tell you if you see someone in the curb, you should stop -- if you're paying attention."

Concerns over inattentive drivers have spurred police metro-wide to step up crosswalk patrols.

Last month, Robbinsdale police cited 80 drivers over two days in a first-ever crosswalk sting. Edina boosted their crosswalk enforcement in July, starting a new annual crosswalk campaign around such popular areas as Southdale Center. In Minneapolis, the city has increased crosswalk times and is experimenting with a new pedestrian-friendly signal pattern in Uptown, giving pedestrians a four-second head start to enter the crosswalk so drivers can see them before turning.

And in Minnetonka last week, police ramped up patrols at two busy crossings after Elaine Arndt called the city to complain. Arndt, who walks outside at The Glenn, the senior-living residence where she lives, said cars zip by at 35 miles per hour over faded crosswalk paint.

It's "an accident waiting to happen," she said. "For these senior citizens with walkers and canes ... to cross that intersection is dangerous."

A costly ticket

Her concerns and other resident calls prompted Minnetonka to recently repaint crosswalk lines.

And, with police staff posing as pedestrians last Wednesday, they stopped nine drivers and gave two citations for violating the crosswalk law after a similar sting netted 17 stops and 10 citations.

The cost for the misdemeanor ticket: $178. That's more than most speeding tickets.

Drivers told Minnetonka police they either didn't see the decoy pedestrian or figured they had time to cruise through the crossing.

In Eden Prairie, resident complaints also pushed city staff to buy eight neon signs that they're starting to rotate this week in busy crosswalks to boost awareness of the state law and to remind drivers that every crossing -- marked or unmarked -- is a legal crossing for pedestrians.

That's the message of this month's new statewide campaign by the Department of Transportation, reminding drivers to stop at crosswalks and to look before turning corners. Walkers and runners are advised to make eye contact with drivers before crossing and avoid distracted walking. The promotion includes billboards, bus signs, radio ads -- even posters in stalls of men's restrooms at bars and restaurants. "Hey walkers. Tomorrow you may feel like a truck hit you. Tonight, make sure one doesn't," reads one.

In an instant, tragedy

At about 5 p.m. Aug. 29, Thiberge, the exchange student, walked by the Twisted Fork Grille on Grand Avenue, where Tami Ellis of St. Paul and her boyfriend, Daryl Coppoletti, were sitting at an outside table. Ellis watched her wait at a red light at Hamline Avenue. "She wasn't texting or on her phone," Ellis said.

When the light turned green and walk signal flashed on, Thiberge stepped off the curb. A split second later, a Honda Pilot turning right on the green light struck her.

Ellis rushed to help as Coppoletti yelled at the driver to back up to get a tire off Thiberge, who was face down and unconscious. "[The driver] was completely freaked out," Ellis said.

The crash remains under investigation by police, who said the driver is cooperating and wasn't cited at the scene. Thiberge, who would've graduated from her university overseas in 2015, was hospitalized for four days before she died, with her parents by her side.

About a week later, the incident still haunts Ellis and Coppoletti. "It's hard to stop thinking about it," Coppoletti said. "She did everything she was supposed to do."

Staff writer Heron Marquez contributed to this story. Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystrib

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