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Monday, August 27, 2012

Police get cross about crosswalks

Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune * Updated: August 17, 2012 - 10:50 AM

Robbinsdale's first-ever major crosswalk crackdown netted 80 citations over two days for drivers who blew past two neon signs, painted pavement and even an undercover pedestrian.

The ramped-up enforcement comes amid a rise in pedestrian deaths in Minnesota and as cities promote walkability, which puts more pedestrians in the danger zone.

"People are driving aggressively, they're not paying attention. ... It's not safe," Robbinsdale Police Chief Steve Smith said about the need for crackdowns like the sting, which prompted some residents to pull up lawn chairs to watch the action.

Part of the problem is that drivers and walkers are more distracted than ever before, cued in to smartphones and other diversions. The dangerous combination is sparking new safety efforts this year by many Twin Cities communities and also by the state, which is launching its first crosswalk safety campaign in nearly 15 years with a slew of ads, billboards and events in the next month.

"There are more distracted drivers and more distracted pedestrians," said Gordy Pehrson of the traffic safety office at the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. "Not only do we need more enforcement, but we need to educate people more, especially motorists."

In short, drivers are supposed to stop or yield to pedestrians whether they're in a marked crosswalk or not, while walkers are supposed to enter a crosswalk with care.

"There's a shared responsibility," he said.

Seniors requested help

The blitz to enforce and educate comes at a time when walkability is a growing priority, with the number of people walking to their destinations up 18 percent from 2007 to 2011, according to Bike Walk Twin Cities. Cities such as Minneapolis, Bloomington, Edina, Hopkins and St. Louis Park are all looking to make streets more walkable with infrastructure changes.

That's prompted residents in Edina to request better enforcement of crosswalks, spurring police to start a new annual three-week crosswalk safety campaign this year. In July, Edina police handed out an estimated 20 citations around popular areas such as Southdale Center and the 50th and France commercial area.

"We've never had a focused effort like this," Edina Sgt. Tim Olson said.

In Robbinsdale, it was also residents, particularly senior citizens, who prompted the city to step up crosswalk enforcement. Last week, police enlisted the help of several metro area officers to nab 80 drivers, to the cheers and thumbs-up of onlookers.

"It's an issue that generally doesn't get a lot of attention, and I think it's an issue that needs it," Robbinsdale officer Ryan Pankratz said.

Robbinsdale enlisted the help of last year's newly formed Hennepin County Traffic Enforcement Group, traffic officers from Minneapolis, west and north metro suburbs and other agencies that assist one another. Initially they were asked to help with speeders, but after Robbinsdale officers were inundated with stops for drivers violating the crosswalk law near Sanborn Park, they reassigned the group to visibly boost crosswalk control.

Pedestrians vs. drivers

All too often, it takes a tragedy to spur action.

Between Chanhassen and Eden Prairie, a pedestrian flasher system will be added to an intersection on Hwy. 101 after a 12-year-old girl died when struck by a car while crossing the highway.

In the blame game, crashes are often attributed to actions by both drivers and pedestrians. In the 857 cases last year of Minnesota pedestrians killed or injured -- a rise of nearly 50 from the year before -- 35 percent of drivers had failed to yield to the pedestrians. The next biggest cause: distraction or inattention. Of the 40 pedestrians killed, 11 were trying to cross a road without a crosswalk or signal and 12 had consumed alcohol.

Pehrson said both drivers and pedestrians are more distracted, texting while walking or driving (which is illegal in Minnesota), checking phones or tuning out with music.
While other traffic-death causes such as drunken driving or not wearing seat belts continue to dip, pedestrian deaths in Minnesota have risen since 2008 after declining over the previous decade. Because other traffic deaths have fallen in number, pedestrian deaths now make up a higher proportion -- about 10 percent -- of overall traffic deaths.

In states like California, Pehrson said, "people literally slam on the brakes to stop for you." It will take a cultural shift, he said, to change Minnesotans' mind-set about crosswalks.

Starting Sept. 25 -- just ahead of October, the deadliest month for pedestrians -- the Minnesota Department of Transportation will unveil new billboards, radio and bus ads and stage events in Minneapolis, St. Paul, St. Cloud, Rochester and Duluth to spread the word that every corner should be treated as a crosswalk, marked or not.

So far this year, 15 pedestrians have died.

"We're not really seeing any big change," Pehrson said. "If we do absolutely nothing, I don't think that the trends are going to change."

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