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After deadly streak of crashes, Cincinnati looks at improving pedestrian, cyclist safety

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Posted at 7:00 AM, Oct 20, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-20 09:03:09-04

CINCINNATI -- One by one they walked by the large windows of the new Cincinnati Police District 3 headquarters on Ferguson Road in Westwood, students headed home from Western Hills High School just down the road.

On the other side of those windows, a city council committee met with traffic enforcement earlier this week to discuss their and all other pedestrians' and bicyclists' safety, after eight across the Tri-State died after being struck by an automobile in just the last month.

"We are in a corridor right around here where there are kids walking to school during a very busy time every day," said City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, who chairs the Education and Entrepreneurship Committee. Councilmen Wendell Young and Chris Seelbach also sat on the committee Tuesday.

It's an issue Sittenfeld has had on his mind for a while: In February, he called for the city's transportation department to prepare a report studying traffic crash data in order to locate the city's most dangerous corridors and intersections for pedestrians and cyclists.

In the weeks prior to Sittenfeld's motion, 73-year-old Stephen Frank was killed when police said a Cincinnati Metro bus driver took an improper turn through a crosswalk in Hyde Park. Frank's daughter Emily, 41, was also hurt in the collision.

Just days later, in Anderson Township, 42-year-old Michael Prater, died in a hit-and-run collision involving a motorist police said was driving impaired by prescription pills. The driver in that case, 34-year-old Melinda Woodall, was later sentenced to 13 years in prison after pleading no contest to aggravated vehicular homicide, failure to stop and multiple drug charges.

The issue was brought to the forefront last week, when Cincinnati police issued a warning to pedestrians and drivers alike to "be defensive," following a spike in recent collisions. Cincinnati's Northside neighborhood organized a "walkabout rally" after two pedestrians were struck on Hamilton Avenue in the heart of the entertainment district. Well-known Northside business owner, Sarah Cole, died from injuries incurred in one of those collisions.

The city's traffic study found that Cincinnati has seen 13 pedestrian and cyclist fatalities since 2014.

Cincinnati Police Lt. Bruce Hoffbauer, section commander in the department's traffic unit, spoke at Tuesday's committee meeting. He said what many consider to be the problem -- lack of enforcement of traffic rules -- is actually only one small piece in a much larger puzzle.

"Sometimes when you have a pedestrian struck or a bad crash, suddenly the community senses a terrible problem with speeding. What we find out is that it’s not usually as bad as originally thought," he told the committee. "Citations can be a deterrent, but that’s not the answer.

"Sometimes our mere presence can help, but it's a short-term solution to a long-term goal."

Hoffbauer said he sees these traffic incidents as cases when "the pedestrian and the motorists aren’t sharing the road as good neighbors."

"It comes down to who was using the road legally," he said, which means pedestrians crossing in the crosswalk and drivers watching and yielding when at intersections.

This point resonated with Young, who said he remembers from his childhood seeing television and educational programming that explained the rules of the road -- engaging children specifically.

"Educating kids about traffic safety, I think that component’s missing anymore," he said.

Two of the last month's incidents involved children, including 12-year-old Eric Raney, who was struck and killed in a hit-and-run collision while riding his bicycle to Campbell County Middle School in Alexandria.

Hoffbauer agreed: "I think sometimes with our younger people, there’s some disregard for (traffic rules) because they don’t feel like using the crosswalks," stressing the importance and necessity of engaging community youth as part of the problem's long-term solution.

"What's old can become new again," Young quipped. 

But it's not just the people involved. It's also the road itself.

Hoffbauer said there are design questions to be considered when addressing pedestrian and cyclist safety: "The western side of Hamilton County is very old, so the roadway and highway systems were built for cars in the 1920s," he said. "Now we’re putting more people and automobiles on roads that were built for traffic volumes in the '20s."

It's in part this reason city council turned to its transportation department for not just the crash hot spots but also recommendations on how to address these areas and others to improve pedestrian safety.

First, here are those hotspots, according to the study. To zoom, use the +/- buttons in the bottom left corner. For a list of the intersections, see the left sidebar in the map:

The report also pointed to Liberty Street between Sycamore Street and Central Parkway and Warsaw Avenue between Purcell and St. Lawrence as "two corridors with significant numbers of pedestrian crashes" -- 15 and nine, respectively, during the study period.

The study also saw a few patterns emerge within the set of crash data:

  • Most occurred during the day and with dry weather
  • In most cases, the pedestrian was "doing everything right" -- that is, crossing in a crosswalk with the signal. Drivers were cited 61 percent of the time, pedestrians and cyclists 31 percent
  • More than half of the crashes involved the automobile making a turn
  • When it's the pedestrian's fault, there's a 1-in-3 chance they weren't in a crosswalk

Parsing through this data showed analysts where some of the problems might be originating, namely that visibility, distraction, education and situational awareness are all contributing factors.

So what do we do about it, specifically?

The report was direct in saying there's no silver bullet here: "Unfortunately there is not a single solution that can be universally applied to solve these issues," it states.

The report identifies multiple possible strategies -- some already seen at other city intersections -- such as "bump outs," which shorten the distance pedestrians must travel across the crosswalk by extending the curb slightly at the intersection. 

It also mentions things like count-down pedestrian crossing signals, which the city now uses when replacing an aging traffic signal, and simplified intersection layouts. Other recommendations:

  • New, high-visibility crosswalk markings and signs
  • Dedicated left-turn times that begin after pedestrian signal clears
  • Intersection geometry to reduce "rolling stops"
  • Pedestrian medians at intersection to calm traffic and provide a refuge when crossing wider streets
  • Adding a tool to the city's traffic
  • Improved lighting 

The report also points to the notion of critical mass, quoting a 2013 New York Department of Transportation study that considers the notion that, when pedestrians are gathered in numbers, they become more visible: "Perhaps the simplest way to improve safety for vulnerable users is to increase their presence on the street. Encouraging these users toward a specific location makes their presence more predictable to drivers. Creating facilities that draws users is key to increasing these volumes."

It's an idea that seemed to resonate with Sittenfeld during Tuesday's committee meeting, when he referenced the report's closing paragraph: "As the report says, we’re all pedestrians at some point in the day. Everyone’s able to put themselves in the shoes of those struck.

"If any of these recommendations can save one life, I'd be for it."

Specific directives from city council regarding the report's findings are still to come.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and development for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).