Walk at your own risk: Drivers oblivious to suburban crosswalks

 
 
Posted12/18/2017 5:30 AM
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  • Traffic speeds by so fast at a crosswalk in Downers Grove that it's risky for Daily Herald reporter Marni Pyke and her 7-year-old to step out onto the road. Illinois law requires pedestrians to be in the crosswalk for drivers to stop, a situation safety advocates call a "Catch-22."

      Traffic speeds by so fast at a crosswalk in Downers Grove that it's risky for Daily Herald reporter Marni Pyke and her 7-year-old to step out onto the road. Illinois law requires pedestrians to be in the crosswalk for drivers to stop, a situation safety advocates call a "Catch-22." Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Crosswalks test by the numbers

    Graphic: Crosswalks test by the numbers (click image to open)

  • Top risky crosswalks

    Graphic: Top risky crosswalks (click image to open)

The zebra stripes and neon yellow sign invite you to cross. Drivers are supposed -- indeed legally required -- to stop. And yet, when Daily Herald journalists tested out suburban crosswalks, they found a survival-of-the fittest scenario with pedestrians on the losing side.

Illinois law requires drivers to stop for people within crosswalks and obligates pedestrians to take caution and not walk into the path of oncoming traffic.

But Daily Herald staff members not only encountered drivers who sped through crosswalks as they walked through, but they also experienced high-volume traffic that made it perilous to step onto the zebra stripes.

Safety advocates weren't surprised.

"I find stepping into a crosswalk in Illinois is something that puts pedestrians in danger, because cars and drivers do not stop," Illinois AARP State Director Bob Gallo said.

"They will drive around pedestrians and in some cases seem annoyed that someone is crossing in the street, whether it's mid-block or at the corner."

Daily Herald journalists conducted 49 tests of crosswalks not connected with stop signs or traffic lights in Cook, DuPage, Kane and Lake counties in November and December. Among the findings in the informal study:

• In 20 percent of tests, drivers whizzed through crosswalks despite a reporter either standing or walking within the striped area.

• Walkers were temporarily stranded in the middle of crosswalks 12 percent of the time as traffic continued without allowing them to reach the other side.

• One reporter on a busy stretch of Central Road in Mount Prospect waited more than 10 minutes while at least 99 vehicles surged through the crosswalk at Emerson Street until a vehicle stopped. It took more than 99 vehicles until it was safe for the reporter to proceed.

• Ninety percent of the time, traffic continued through crosswalks without heeding people on the curb.

Illinois' nuanced law saying cars can continue through crosswalks until a pedestrian has both feet in the crosswalk is pure "Catch-22," widower Eric Jakubowski of Mount Prospect thinks.

"If you stand on the curb, traffic will not stop. If you step off, the law is on your side, but you are taking a big chance. This shouldn't be the choice," said Jakubowski, whose wife, Joni Beaudry, was killed by a driver who was oblivious to her as she rode a bike through a crosswalk enhanced with yellow flashing lights June 9, 2016, on Central Road in Mount Prospect.

Drivers in the Chicago area are not accustomed to stopping automatically at crosswalks even when pedestrians are present, experts say -- and statistics bear that out.
  Drivers in the Chicago area are not accustomed to stopping automatically at crosswalks even when pedestrians are present, experts say -- and statistics bear that out. - Daniel White | Staff Photographer
'No one ... would ever stop'

The situation is particularly problematic on busy arterial roads with high-speed traffic where crosswalks are located. Pedestrians looking for a sweet spot where it's safe to step onto the crosswalk without causing shrieking brakes can have a long wait.

The average number of cars that passed through crosswalks as reporters waited on the curb until traffic stopped was 14.6, and the average time was 1 minute and 16 seconds.

"No one showed any inclination that they would stop or even slow down to let me cross, even when I was standing in the middle of the road in the crosswalk," columnist Burt Constable said of his experience on Golf Road in Mount Prospect Nov. 22.

And discretion was the better part of valor for sports writer David Oberhelman, who declined to put one toe onto a Naperville Road crosswalk in Wheaton. After waiting nearly two minutes on Nov. 30, "it became apparent that no one speeding 45 to 50 mph on that stretch would ever stop for a pedestrian," he said.

Reporter Christopher Placek picked a crosswalk at Arlington Heights Road and St. James Street where a 9-year-old girl was hit Nov. 22 and survived.

After two vehicles sped by, others stopped, but on the final stretch Placek "jogged across because other cars were fast approaching."

The law may work for able-bodied adults, but parents with young children in tow and senior citizens out for a walk shouldn't be forced to bet on the odds, safety advocates said.

"You're stepping into the road for someone to run you over. It's nonsensical," Gallo said.

One notable exception occurred at the Seminary Road crosswalk at Wheaton College. There, Oberhelman found "Cars stopped right away."

Compliance on the college campus reflects a culture where pedestrians are expected and respected, and that's true in other parts of the U.S. such as Colorado or Minnesota where drivers are accustomed to crosswalks or roads are designed to slow cars as they approach, experts said.

But fast-flowing arterials in the suburbs are problematic. Drivers could be rear-ended if they stop quickly, can have insufficient reaction time or can't tell if a pedestrian wants to cross, traffic researchers explained.

Just "a sign at high-speed, wide crossings is not sufficient," said Professor Kay Fitzpatrick, a senior research engineer at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. She cited flashing beacons and additional pavement markings as ways to alert drivers.

Drivers must stop for pedestrians once they're in the crosswalk, but pedestrians can't enter a crosswalk if vehicles are coming and presenting a danger -- the Catch-22.
  Drivers must stop for pedestrians once they're in the crosswalk, but pedestrians can't enter a crosswalk if vehicles are coming and presenting a danger -- the Catch-22. - Daniel White | Staff Photographer
Pedestrian fatalities spiking

The Active Transportation Alliance studied crossing safety in 2014 and found 78 percent of all pedestrian crashes in Chicago occur within 125 feet of an intersection, and that older pedestrians are most at risk in crosswalks.

"People are not aware of the law, and our streets are designed in a way that encourages people to speed and drive recklessly," said Kyle Whitehead, the alliance's government relations director.

Authorities agree there are misperceptions.

"One of the things we answer constantly is, 'What is the law on crosswalks?'" Arlington Heights Deputy Chief Mark Recker said. "It's confusing to some people, and some of the walking public is under the impression that 'If I'm at the curb, it's the driver's obligation to stop,' "

Dave Druker of the Illinois secretary of state's office noted that "If someone's driving at 40 mph, it's not the time to test the law."

In the case of the 9-year-old Arlington Heights girl, she and her family did everything right, but one driver, oblivious to other stopped cars, switched lanes and struck her. The child was taken to a hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening, an outcome that Recker called "pretty miraculous."

"The unfortunate, sad truth is that car drivers often do not recognize pedestrians or people waiting to cross the street, and the data really bears this out," Itasca-based National Safety Council President Deborah Hersman said.

Pedestrian crash deaths totaled 5,987 in 2016, a 9 percent hike from 2015, the Governors Highway Safety Assocation reported.

Since Illinois' law requiring drivers to stop for pedestrians was enacted in 2010, awareness is growing and the Illinois Department of Transportation is considering adding a pedestrian safety component to its public service announcements in 2018, spokesman Guy Tridgell said.

For Jakubowski, "Illinois made a move in the right direction when they made changes to 'protect' pedestrians with clarity on the issue of right of way. The problem is you can't make progress with this goal when you limit your investment to slapping up neon yellow signs.

"In this game of 'chicken' we all know the car always wins with devastating results."

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