By JULIE E. GREENE
4:17 PM EST, December 1, 2012
As Irene Giffin was crossing Leitersburg Pike’s northbound lanes in her motorized wheelchair in a crosswalk, vehicles coming out of a shopping center would pass in front of or behind her, the Hagerstown resident said.
“At one time, it was so close to me I could touch the car and it scared the living bejeebers out of me,” said Giffin, who uses a red flag that flies 3 feet to 4 feet above her wheelchair when she is in traffic situations.
Giffin said she thought at first she made a mistake or the traffic signals’ synchronization was mixed up.
But each time the electronic pedestrian sign gave her the go ahead to cross, the traffic signal turned green for traffic leaving both Long Meadow Shopping Center and Stone House Square.
George Small, assistant district engineer for the Maryland State Highway Administration’s Western Maryland district, said the SHA generally does not provide red light signals in all directions that would give pedestrians exclusive time to cross the street at isolated intersections.
“I understand what she’s faced with,” Small said, noting that he’s heard “more of this type of thing throughout the Hagerstown area.”
“I think it’s just poor driving,” Small said.
“The old thing about an ounce of prevention. It needs some enforcement, a couple of tickets,” Small said.
“You pay out the nose a couple of times, then maybe you’ll realize that a motorist is supposed to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk. That’s the law.”
Hagerstown Police Capt. Mark Holtzman, who is the acting police chief, said the police department doesn’t set specific checks for crosswalk enforcement. However, keeping an eye out for crosswalk violators is a normal part of officers’ patrols, he said.
Educating the public is key, Holtzman said.
Holtzman said the police department will have auxiliary officers visit the two shopping centers on Dec. 11 to hand out pedestrian safety literature to shoppers.
Giffin, 62, said she often uses the crosswalk that stretches across Md. 60 — also known as Leitersburg Pike and Potomac Avenue in the area of the shopping centers from the Columbia Bank near Long Meadow Shopping Center to Stone House Square.
There are buttons on both sides of the crosswalk for pedestrians to push to activate the pedestrian crossing signal. That signal gives a verbal warning and a countdown for pedestrians to cross.
Giffin said the amount of time provided to cross is not the issue.
At least three times recently, vehicles drove in front of her wheelchair or behind her as she attempted to cross using the crosswalk, Giffin said.
“I looked up and I hollered, ‘Whoa,’ to this person coming in front of me,” she said. “Then, I looked up and absolutely he had the green light, but I also had the pedestrian light to cross.”
Giffin said she went home and called the city of Hagerstown and then the state highway administration because she thought there was a problem with the synchronization of the traffic and pedestrian signals.
Sharing the road
Small said the State Highway Administration doesn’t usually provide pedestrians exclusive time to use a crosswalk by giving motorists in every direction red lights.
“For one thing, it just absorbs an immense amount of time,” Small said.
And giving pedestrians exclusive time to cross at every intersection would disrupt traffic flow, he said.
Arranging red traffic signals to give pedestrians exclusive time to cross at crosswalks generally is done for places with a huge volume of pedestrians, such as downtown Baltimore, he said.
Pedestrians also wouldn’t know, from intersection to intersection, whether they had the exclusive right to cross when the pedestrian signal gives the go ahead to cross, Small said.
Giffin said she was upset and puzzled when told by a state highway official that pedestrians in the Hagerstown area don’t have an exclusive period of time to use crosswalks.
“Why have all that fancy powerful paraphernalia with the lights, the pole and the push button to wait for the pedestrian light, and the talking machine?” she said. “Why have all that if it’s just a fluke?”
Giffin said the pedestrian light gave her a “false sense of security.”
“And the drivers are angry because they’re assuming I’m going against the light,” she said.
Mike Bible, regional traffic safety program manager for the Maryland Highway Safety Office, said he understands Giffin’s concern.
“I guess we could first start off by saying in any county or city or whatever, the vehicle or motorist need to realize it is their obligation to come to a complete stop when a pedestrian is in a crosswalk,” Bible said.
A 2003 law basically states drivers are to come to a complete stop when a pedestrian is crossing the road in a crosswalk, Bible said. It doesn’t matter whether there is a traffic signal at the intersection or whether motorists have a green light, they need to stop for pedestrians, including people in wheelchairs, he said.
The 2003 law expanded an existing law to include motorists approaching a crosswalk from an adjacent lane on the other half of a roadway, Bible said. Motorists also must stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk, even though the pedestrian is not in front of their path yet, he said.
The maximum penalty for a driver who fails to stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk is a fine of up to $500 and one point on the driver’s license, Bible said.
The maximum penalty for a driver who contributes to a crash involving a pedestrian in a crosswalk is a fine of up to $500, three points on the driver’s license and up to two months in jail, he said.
Bible said Giffin’s concern went to Washington County’s Traffic Advisory Committee, of which he is a member. He provided Hagerstown Police with English and Spanish versions of Street Smart brochures, which include safety tips for drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists. The brochures include a tip for motorists to yield to pedestrians and cyclists when turning and shows a person in a crosswalk.
Pedestrians are to cross the street at marked crosswalks and intersections, looking left, right and left again before crossing, the brochure states.
Bible said he has received complaints of motorists not stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks on Burhans Boulevard at West Washington and West Franklin streets.
Drivers need to be aware they must yield the right-of-way to pedestrians, he said.
Pedestrian traffic picks up at this time of year as people are shopping for the holidays, he said.
“Many times as a motorist, we get into a hustle and bustle, so focused on getting here and there and doing this and that, that many times we don’t give full attention to intersections where (there) could be pedestrians crossing,” Bible said.
“Even though we don’t see a pedestrian at a certain location every day, there is a possibility that a pedestrian could be crossing a roadway,” Bible said.
“We need to pay full-time attention to the roadway,” he said.
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