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Playing It Smart

As tourist season begins, new COG campaign aims for pedestrian safety.

An extra seat will sit empty at Jeff Gold’s Seder table this Passover, as it did last year. It was "almost exactly two years ago," Gold said Monday, that his father was killed in a traffic accident.

Gold’s father was the victim of a rising trend in the region, a pedestrian killed while crossing the road. To fight that trend, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments brought elected officials from across the region to Ballston on Monday to announce the kickoff of Street Smart, a public awareness and enforcement campaign, emphasizing pedestrian safety.

"After nearly a decade of steady decline," pedestrian fatalities have risen for the last two years, said Chris Zimmerman, Arlington’s representative to the MWCOG transportation planning board and a County Board member.

In 2003, Zimmerman said, "more than 85 pedestrians and bicyclists were killed as a result of crashes, and 2,600 were injured," across the DC area.

That’s a clear sign "we have not paid enough attention to pedestrian safety," said Fairfax Board of Supervisors chairman Gerald Connolly, and it shows why the Street Smart program is necessary.

The campaign kicks off at the start of the heaviest pedestrian season for the region, said Zimmerman, when tourists are most likely to be crossing local streets to get to museums or Metro stations. But pedestrian safety is always important in the Washington region, said Dan Tangherlini, District department of transportation director. "The city has the largest number of people who walk to work, after Boston."

<b>FOR THOSE PEDESTRIANS,</b> "crossing the street should not be a death-defying act," said Montgomery County, Md., Executive Doug Duncan.

Holding the kickoff for the campaign in Ballston made sense, said Zimmerman, because with Ballston Common Mall, apartments buildings and office buildings in a five block radius, it is "a place where people live, work and play … and the almost all do that without walking."

Watching the event from in front of the National Science Foundation, Eric Myers agreed. "I almost get run over twice a day" on the way to and from work, he said. "I take the Metro, and I’m dodging crazy drivers all over the place."

<b>TO OFFER RELIEF</b> to pedestrians like Myers, the Council of Governments will promote pedestrian safety with public service announcements on local cable channels, radio stations, and advertisements in local newspapers and on bus shelters.

Holding up a sample ad, Zimmerman said that some ads will be an attempt to educate pedestrians: "Take the Time to Cross Safely." Others will be aimed at drivers, advising them to "Watch for Pedestrians" or "Watch for Bicyclists."

Those ads, and fliers available at Metro stations, will also target the region’s Latino, Vietnamese and Korean communities, particularly in pushing pedestrian safety.

That means "if you’re a pedestrian, wear bright clothing," said Duncan, noting that 80 percent of pedestrian fatalities occur at night. The advertising campaign will cost $400,000, all funds donated by local governments.

In addition, police departments across the region will be stepping up enforcement of pedestrian safety, ticketing drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians in cross walks.

In Montgomery County, police officers have just finished a training program covering changes in pedestrian safety laws, and the District and Fairfax County are increasing speeding and red light enforcement at intersections with heavy pedestrian traffic, said Bill Tower, law enforcement coordinator with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"The next time a driver swerves past a pedestrian in a crosswalk, that pedestrian might be a police officer," said Tower. "And that driver might be getting a friendly reminder from another police officer."

<b>GOLD LAUDED</b> the Street Smart program. But it comes too late for his family. A DJ on oldies radio station WBIG 100 FM, Gold was about to go on the air in April 2002, when he got a call from Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. "They said, you better come down here, your dad’s been hit by a car," Gold said Monday.

Gold bought a condo for his father in Bethesda, to be close to family, and soon after moving here, Gold said, his father was a regular on local sidewalks. "His favorite thing was walking around, saying ‘Hi.’"

While crossing at a crosswalk, his father was hit by a pickup truck turning left, and died of his injuries soon after.

The road has even more distractions today than it did two years ago, Gold said, pointing to cell phones and televisions in minivans. "I beg drivers to pay attention to the task at hand: driving a lethal weapon — a car. I know there are a million distractions, but try to concentrate."