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Walking Scared

Efforts are under way to make safer crossings for pedestrians.

Laine Wheatley lives just a six-minute walk from the Safeway in Broadlands. But one day when she and her golden retriever Molly were halfway across Broadlands Boulevard, a turning car nearly struck the two of them.

"He just made his turn as if we weren't there," Wheatley said.

It was something that Wheatley, who walks regularly, had noticed as soon as she moved to the area from the Pacific Northwest a year ago: drivers who don't heed pedestrians, even at crosswalks. Now the former librarian wants to do something about it.

"I have seen too many kids that have to yield," Wheatley said. "To me, it hurts my heart to think that someone wouldn't yield to a child."

Wheatley has contacted the School Board, the Board of Supervisors, state Sen. Bill Mims and Sheriff Steve Simpson in the beginning stages of a battle that's twofold:

* First, get the state code for yielding at crosswalks enforced, and

* Second, get some more crosswalks to begin with.

Loudoun County is no pedestrian-friendly zone, and crosswalks are few and far in between. In Broadlands, a planned community that prides itself on being user-friendly, there's no crosswalk taking residents to the Safeway from townhouses just yards away on the other side of the four-lane Broadlands Boulevard. Neither is there a four-way stop to halt oncoming traffic.

THE SITUATION isn't helped by an ambiguous state code that tries to bridge the gap between pedestrian and driver rights. At one point it says the pedestrian always has the right of way and at another point charges the pedestrian with the responsibility not to enter the roadway "in disregard of approaching traffic."

"I didn't see it as ambiguous," Wheatley said. "Pedestrians have a responsibility to cross when it's safe. I only know one thing — that cars don't stop for pedestrians."

A concerted effort to change the wording of the state code has been underway for two years. According to Charles Denney, bicycle and pedestrian program manager for the Arlington County Department of Environmental Services, the attempt to change the word from "yield" to "stop" for pedestrians failed to pass the General Assembly earlier this year.

"I think we made a pretty good case," Denney said.

Del. Joe May (R-33), who serves as vice chairman of the House's transportation committee, had sponsored the bill. "It was pretty difficult to determine the situation the way we wanted to," he said. "There was a number of people concerned about over-regulation. We didn't have the wording quite right."

May expects the issue to be resurrected at a future session.

IN THE PAST two years, four people have been killed crossing the street in Loudoun County, according to Kraig Troxell, spokesman for the Sheriff's Office. One fatality was a six-year-old child playing four-square on Hyde Park Drive in Ashburn.

In 2003, 42 pedestrian incidents were reported, with minor injuries in most cases. In 2004, 37 incidents have been reported so far.

While the Sheriff's Office does not place deputies at random crosswalks to catch heedless drivers, it does have a system in place to protect children leaving Loudoun schools: 53 crosswalk guards at 46 locations across the county.

Howard E. Mahoney Jr., a retired Bell Atlantic employee, stops traffic every day at Rolling Ridge Elementary School and Sterling Middle School. He reported few contrary drivers during his shifts, but admits that it might be due to his "high and tight" haircut and reflective aviator shades, giving him an officer-like presentation.

"You do have to at times give that stern look at drivers," he said.

As a member of the Sheriff's auxiliary unit as well, Mahoney was given high-volume crossings because he doesn't flinch at striding out into oncoming traffic. On a given day, Mahoney could blow his whistle and walk, palm out, toward moving cars a few dozen times at Rolling Ridge. At Sterling Middle School, a partner switches the stoplights before Mahoney clears the path for students.

A pair of flashing yellow lights down a stretch of road from the school does little to slow drivers to 25 mph, the required speed for school areas, Mahoney said.

"I can see cars, I can see them coming, picking up speed and you still have to go out," he said.

FOR WHEATLEY, the fight to train drivers in Loudoun has just begun. Growing up in San Diego, she experienced first-hand the city's crackdown on inconsiderate driving, and remembers how annoyed drivers — and most pedestrians are drivers too — were at the heightened police vigilance. But while a couple decades have passed since then, pedestrians in San Diego don't have to wait at the edge of a crosswalk for a break in traffic, Wheatley said.

"No one wanted to do it," she said. "But even today when you go back, there is a sense of courtesy."

Wheatley hopes that a clarification of the state code in combination with educating drivers and pedestrians of their rights will help clear up the situation and make it safer for everyone.

"We need to ask the Sheriff's Office to enforce this until we see a time when there's an impact, that most of the time, walkers are safe," she said.