With increasingly distracted and harried drivers behind the wheel these days, navigating city streets is getting more dangerous for pedestrians.
Encouraged to walk more and drive less, too many are being injured by motorists who believe they own the right of way. Meanwhile, some of the same bureaucrats who tout the benefits of leaving the car at home are doing too little to enforce the laws and keep pedestrians safe.
Consider the crosswalk-from-hell at the intersection of Snelling and Lincoln avenues in St. Paul. It's just one of hundreds of no-signal — yet well-marked — crossings in the metro area where motorists are required by law to stop for pedestrians. It's also likely one of the most dangerous.
On May 27, Macalester College students Sowinta Kay, 20, and Yacine Diouf, 19, were walking east from campus when a witness said they "jumped" from the curb into the crosswalk, which is marked with large white stripes and yellow pedestrian warning signs.
The driver of an SUV in the right lane of southbound Snelling hit the brakes and stopped. But there's a second southbound lane on Snelling, and a witness told police that a car behind the SUV in the other lane was speeding up when it struck Kay and Diouf, who may have been hidden from view as they crossed the street.
Both women, who had just finished their first year in the school's Davis United World College Scholars program, were injured, and Kay remains in critical condition at Regions Hospital. The 35-year-old driver, who stayed at the scene and passed a preliminary breath test, has not been cited. Police are continuing to investigate the accident.
College officials were still reeling from this incident when, just four days later, they learned that a woman who lives in the Macalester neighborhood received minor injuries in a similar accident in the same crosswalk when one vehicle stopped and one in the other lane did not.
Sadly, the Macalester community has extensive experience dealing with pedestrian-auto crosswalk accidents. Officials can rattle off the names of six college employees or neighbors who've been hit and injured in recent years. Cleo Thiberge, a 19-year-old foreign exchange student, was killed in 2012 after being run over by a driver in a crosswalk near campus at the intersection of Grand and Hamline avenues.
On and off over the past two frustrating years, Macalester official Thomas Welna has asked city and state traffic engineers to make the intersection of Snelling — also state Hwy. 51 — and Lincoln safer. According to Welna, Macalester has offered to pay for a pedestrian-activated system that adds flashing lights to signs in no-signal crosswalks. The cost: about $15,000. The college also would like to see the speed limit on Snelling lowered from 30 mph to 25 mph.
Meanwhile, according to Welna, Minnesota Department of Transportation staffers have never said no to Macalester's requests but instead have floated the idea of much more expensive overhead signage, while continuing to express concerns that crosswalks create a "false sense of security" for walkers. In other words, blame the pedestrians.
"We're not trying to create a false sense of security," Welna said. "We're trying to narrow the risk."
An editorial writer recently looked on as groups and individual pedestrians stood on the curb under yellow pedestrian-crossing signs on both sides of Snelling. Cars often passed without slowing before any stopped as required by law, and in some cases, driver behavior varied from lane to lane as pedestrians attempted to cross.
For its part, MnDOT spokeswoman Christine Krueger said in an e-mail, the department is working with Macalester and "analyzing the crashes to recommend the best engineering solution(s) for this highway. Because of Snelling's high volume of traffic, (passenger vehicles, trucks, transit, bicyclists and pedestrians), there are many factors that we have to review before we can determine the best potential improvements."
Sure, it's complicated, but while MnDOT has been "analyzing," more pedestrians have been hit by cars at Snelling and Lincoln — including Kay and Diouf.
Here's our recommendation: MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle should personally make it clear to his staff that Lincoln and Snelling is a priority, and the department should use the intersection as a test site for new technologies and safety strategies that could be used statewide.
"There are dozens and dozens of intersections like Lincoln and Snelling throughout the Twin Cities and across the state of Minnesota," Welna said.
In fact, there were two deaths and 389 crashes involving serious injuries to pedestrians in crosswalks in Minnesota in 2013, according to the state Department of Public Safety.
Police can play an important role, too, by more actively enforcing pedestrian right-of-way laws. MnDOT, which smartly relaunched its pedestrian safety campaign near Twin Cities college campuses recently, also needs to keep the pressure on motorists to learn and follow the laws.
The Twin Cities can have safer and more pedestrian-friendly streets, but we're headed in the wrong direction right now.