With daylight growing noticeably shorter, pedestrian traffic increasing and schools back in session, public safety officials are trying to shed light on a stubborn problem:
Getting yourself killed while crossing the street.
Despite a state law change nearly 15 years ago aimed at improving crosswalk safety, Minnesota is on pace to match last year's 41 pedestrian deaths. That was the most since 2005 and stands in sharp contrast to the impressive decline in traffic fatalities in recent years.
Twenty pedestrians have died so far this year. With more people walking and biking, and October -- statistically, the deadliest month for pedestrians -- nearing, public safety officials are urging pedestrians and drivers to be more aware. They also are considering a new crosswalk safety campaign to remind motorists that pedestrians, not those in cars, rule the road.
All too often, drivers clash with bicyclists and walkers, ending in irritation and road rage or even injury and death. Who's to blame -- the driver or the pedestrian?
"Everybody has different rights and responsibilities, and safety is a shared responsibility," said Tim Mitchell, the director of the bicycle and pedestrian section for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. "[We] urge people to have patience."
Pedestrian fatalities have remained relatively unchanged since the state crosswalk law, requiring drivers to stop for pedestrians, took effect.
Officials say it's because there's little attention, enforcement or concern in the public about pedestrian safety.
"How do we get people to change their behavior?" said Gordy Pehrson, traffic safety coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
Minneapolis Police Sgt. William Palmer said he's stopped drivers for failing to yield to pedestrians "a few" times over the years, but "education is actually probably a better way to go" at reducing pedestrian fatalities.
Like the "Share the Road" campaign to educate bicyclists and motorists on road safety, MnDOT is looking to launch a new pedestrian-focused safety campaign aimed at crosswalk safety.
Earlier this month, a man walking on a sidewalk in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood was struck by a drunken driver in the morning. Last month a driver hit an elderly St. Louis Park man while he was walking his dogs across a crosswalk. In June, a Woodbury man died after a car hit him while he was crossing the street in the morning.
Statewide between 2007 to 2009, 96 pedestrians were killed. Nearly 900 pedestrians were injured each one of those years.
Of the fatalities, about two of three were in urban areas. One in four occurred between 6 and 9 p.m. The deadliest days were on Fridays and in October, likely because daylight is rapidly fading then, Pehrson said.
"Does that mean in the month of October between 6 to 9 on a Friday, people should be more cautious? I'd say people should always be more cautious," he said.
Pedestrians have the right of way, but both motorists and pedestrians need to be more aware while sharing the streets, he said. Distracted or careless drivers and pedestrians improperly crossing the street are often to blame for incidents.
Minnesotans' mindsets also need to change, he said, to take crosswalks seriously. While working in California, he said, "if you were standing near a corner and you looked like you were going to cross ... people would literally slam on their brakes. Why was it so evident there ... whereas in Minnesota, they don't?
Pedestrians rule, to a point
Both he and Mitchell said they don't know why other states have higher compliance of pedestrian laws.
"There's confusion in Minnesota ... about what the driver's rights are and what the pedestrian's rights are in a crosswalk," Mitchell said. "Most folks believe that the only place pedestrians have rights ... are in crosswalks, and that's not true."
In 1996, the law was tightened to require motorists to stop and yield to pedestrians if they're in a marked crosswalk or at an intersection without a marked crosswalk. Failing to do so could result in a misdemeanor.
Pedestrians are also required not to "suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is impossible for the driver to yield."
Recent fatality trends are below the 1971 record of 157 pedestrian deaths. As recently as 1991, 61 deaths occurred. "Any is too many," Pehrson said.
Barb Thoman, executive director of the St. Paul-based Transit for Livable Communities, said more infrastructure changes, such as adding pedestrian medians or countdown crosswalk timers, could help. In Chaska, a traffic light was installed at an intersection after a man was killed by a car while crossing it in 2008. In Minneapolis, officials may look to improve pedestrian safety at the Seven Corners intersection of Washington and Cedar avenues.
"Pedestrians are the most vulnerable users of the transit system," Thoman said. "It's an issue we need to pay more attention to."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141