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Right of way: Crosswalks can't stop cars

New Hampshire Sunday News

April 28. 2013 12:17AM
A pedestrian crosses Main Street in downtown Nashua on Thursday. Under state law, drivers and pedestrians share a responsibility to avoid accidents. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Crosswalks are supposed to provide a safe place for pedestrians to cross the street. But they may also give some people a false sense of safety.

Police say you can't just step out and assume that traffic will stop for you - especially with today's distracted drivers. In fact, while state law requires a driver to yield the right of way when a pedestrian is within a crosswalk, the law puts an equal burden on pedestrians to avoid an accident.

RSA 265:35 (click for link) states: "No pedestrian shall suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle which is so close as to constitute an immediate hazard."

"Just because you have a crosswalk doesn't necessarily mean you have the right of way," said Manchester Police Sgt. Andrew Vincent.

Pedestrians by law have to obey traffic-control signals. And if there is no marked crosswalk, it's the pedestrian who has to yield the right of way (RSA 265:36).

According to Manchester police, there have been 26 vehicle-pedestrian accidents in the city since Jan. 1; pedestrian error was noted as a contributing factor in seven of those.

Safety is a two-way street, Vincent said. "Obviously, the driver needs to be aware of where they are and what's going on around them," he said. "The pedestrian at the same time needs to be aware when they cross the roadway into oncoming traffic.

"If the car is in a position where if you stepped out into the roadway, you're clearly going to get hit, you don't have the right of way," Vincent said.

And a pedestrian has to signal an intent to cross the road, he said. "The safest thing to do is make eye contact with the motorist to make sure they see you before stepping out."

State law also bars drivers from passing another vehicle that is stopped at a crosswalk to allow a pedestrian to cross the street.

But that may have been what happened in Laconia on April 19, when two 14-year-old girls standing on a sidewalk were hit by a Jeep that police say "suddenly veered" around another vehicle that had stopped at a crosswalk on Messer Street.

Both girls were flown by medical helicopter to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, where Lilyanna Johnson died later that night. The second victim, 14-year-old Alyssa Miner, remains hospitalized, according to police.

Capt. Matthew Canfield, operations division commander for Laconia police, said the nearby middle school had just let out and there were a lot of students in the area. The driver of the first car thought some students were about to cross the street and had stopped at the crosswalk at the Opechee Street intersection, he said.

The Jeep came up behind the stopped car and veered around it on the left, crossing over the southbound lane and striking the two girls on the sidewalk, Canfield said. The Jeep then hit a guardrail, veered back over the two lanes and landed on the curb on the northbound side of the road.

No charges have been filed against the Jeep's driver, Amy Lafond, 51, of Laconia. Canfield said police are still investigating what caused the crash, including a possible mechanical problem with the vehicle, driver distraction such as cellphone use, drugs or alcohol, or speeding. "We are looking into all those and we haven't ruled anything out," he said.

The tragedy prompted the Laconia City Council last week to approve installation of flashing lights at that intersection, warning drivers it's a school zone.

And Canfield said police will also ask the Department of Public Works to place crosswalk signs in the middle of busy intersections, as other cities have done, including Nashua and Concord.

Meanwhile, Nashua is taking steps to make some of its most dangerous crossings safer for pedestrians, according to Capt. Bruce Hansen, bureau commander of uniform field operations for Nashua police.

One of the most dangerous spots, Hansen said, is the corner of East Hollis and C streets. The city recently installed flashing LED lights that a pedestrian can activate when he or she wants to cross the street.

And the Department of Public Works is installing state-of-the-art technology at four "mid-block" crosswalks along Main Street that don't have traffic signals.

Andy Patrician, operations manager for the DPW, said sensors will activate LED lights embedded in the roadways as a pedestrian approaches. And new medians will be constructed, with staggered lanes to improve visibility and safety.

"Not only are the cars seeing the lights come on, the pedestrian is also seeing the traffic as it approaches," Patrician said.

"I think it's going to be a huge improvement," he said. "People are going to see it."

Hansen estimates that "better than half" of vehicle-pedestrian crashes in Nashua happen within crosswalks. And he said, "I would say that more often than not, there are pedestrians that step off a curb and create a hazard rather than a motor vehicle not yielding to a pedestrian in a crosswalk."

At intersections without traffic signals, pedestrians have to yield to motor vehicles "until it's safe for them to step out," Hansen said. "You've got to be prudent."

Sgt. Matthew Shapiro of New Hampshire State Police's special services, highway safety unit, said most pedestrian-involved accidents are caused by the same "big three" risk factors as other crashes: impairment (either the driver or pedestrian), distracted driving and speed. With that in mind, he advises pedestrians to "proceed defensively."

"I'm not blaming the victim," he said. "I'm just saying be well-aware of this to protect yourself."

Canfield agreed that distracted driving is increasingly playing a role in crashes. "Life today is very hurried. Everybody's trying to do a couple things at once."

But he said, "There's no text message or phone call that's worth killing somebody for," he said. "Either wait to do it, or pull over."

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