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Protecting Pedestrians

Police educate people on safely crossing Richmond Highway during five-day campaign.

For the many people in Woodlawn Apartments who rely on public transportation, access is conveniently close-by. The bus stop is only about 100 feet away.

Most of the people who use it cover this distance at a trot, a jog or a full sprint, purses flapping, children’s hands tightly clutched. Woodlawn Apartments is separated from its bus stop by five lanes of heavy, 45 mile-per-hour traffic. The stretch of Route 1 that passes through the Mount Vernon District is one of the most dangerous roads for pedestrians in the county. 19 pedestrian crashes have occurred in the Mount Vernon District this year, with one fatality.

“This is a highly congested area with lots of people living in apartments who use public transportation,” said Captain Mike Kline, Commander of the Mount Vernon Police Station. “There are bus stops in places that make it difficult for people to actually go to places where there are crosswalks. There’s never a slow time of traffic on Route 1.”

Kline said the danger of the road was impressed upon him as soon as he took charge of the station. “Within three months of when I got here in Jan. 2005 we had three horrific pedestrian accidents.” His station now conducts a pedestrian enforcement campaign every six months. The most recent occurred last week. “We don’t want anybody to get hurt,” Kline said. “That’s what its all about.”

ON A RAINY FRIDAY afternoon last week, Sgt. Mark Gohn was patrolling Richmond Highway from Old Mill Road to Huntington. Four other officers were also on the pedestrian beat, and officers in the neighborhood patrol unit were riding up and down on buses, talking to people about safe ways to cross the street and handing out fliers in English and Spanish, one called “Tips to Stay Alive,” the other a list of the laws governing pedestrians. Virginia law says that on roads with speed limits below 35 miles-per-hour, pedestrians must respect traffic, but they have the right of way. On highways like Route 1, with its 45 mile-per-hour speed limit, the law is less clear. Gohn described it as saying, “If you’re close to a crosswalk, use it. If you’re not, you don’t have to, but you have to be really careful.” He said many people find themselves in the latter category because Route 1 has widely-spaced stoplights and few crosswalks. Pedestrians must usually cross at least 5 lanes of traffic, with nothing to rely on but their eyes, legs and wits.

“Richmond Highway has almost no pedestrian infrastructure,” said Bob Brubaker, the director of Metroped, a pedestrian advocacy group. According to a 2006 county study there were 21 pedestrian signals on the eight-mile stretch of Route 1 in Mount Vernon, many of them clustered closely together and leaving long gaps.

Although Gohn and the other officers issued tickets and warnings for not using crosswalks, he said that only 20 percent of the pedestrian campaign was based on enforcement. He said 80 percent was strictly educational. According to a police press release, 52 warnings and five summonses were distributed during the five-day enforcement campaign, and 1,871 fliers were distributed at bus-stops, on buses and to pedestrians.

“Our goal is to reduce the number of pedestrians that are hurt and killed crossing the road,” Gohn said. He listed Woodlawn Apartments and the intersections of Lockheed Lane, Sacramento Drive and Lukens Lane as places where there was dense housing on one side of the road and shopping centers and other destinations on the other.

As he passed Woodlawn Apartments, he pointed it out as the perfect example of what could happen when pedestrians and traffic were forced to regularly mingle. “If I lived here,” he said, “if I was a pedestrian, I’d be thinking I could make it across these lanes to the center [turning] lane, because who’s using that except the people going to Smitty’s? And the people going to Smitty’s are thinking, ‘Who’s going to be standing in the center of the road?’”