Chicago Cracks Down on Drivers Who Threaten Pedestrians

In just the last ten days here in New York City a 7-year-old boy was killed in the crosswalk by a trucker trying to beat a red light in Brooklyn, a young woman on the Upper East Side and a Brooklyn Heights law professor were crushed to death by private sanitation trucks, and a 12-year-old boy was mowed down by a hit-and-run driver in Queens. The list goes on. Yet, none of these horrible killings of innocents on the streets of New York City merited even a mention from Mayor Bloomberg or any other high level city official. Apparently, in America's safest big city, this is just business as usual.

maya_hirsch.jpgNot in Chicago. After a hit-and-run driver killed Maya Hirsch, a 4-year-old girl walking with her family near the Lincoln Park Zoo (right), Mayor Richard Daley launched a major pedestrian safety initiative. Skipping the years of study that we like to do here in New York, Chicago's Departments of Transportation, Emergency Management and Police immediately teamed up to run sting operations at hazardous intersections using plainclothes officers posed as pedestrians. Daley also formed a "Mayor's Pedestrian Advisory Council" while a program called Safe Streets for Chicago is responsible designing and installing traffic calming measures throughout the city.

Here, in its entirety, is the story that ran in yesterday's Chicago Tribune, "Arrogant Drivers Best Look Both Ways" by John Hilkevitch:

Attention, drivers who rip around corners without yielding to pedestrians: Starting in the spring, city officials posing as pedestrians will be sent to high-accident intersections as part of a new crackdown on motorists who endanger walkers.

"We all have families with children and elderly members, who are the most vulnerable in traffic situations. We are trying to cool tempers that flare when people get behind the wheel and remind drivers that they cannot treat pedestrians as if they were just another vehicle on the street," said Cheri Heramb, acting commissioner at the Chicago Department of Transportation.

On average more than one pedestrian is killed in a traffic accident each week in Chicago. Accidents involving pedestrians in the city have dropped from 4,478 incidents in 2000 to 3,632 in 2004, the most recent year for which data are available from the Illinois Department of Transportation. But some experts say the drop could partly be a sign that fewer people are walking city streets out of fear of getting hit.

Officials from the city Transportation Department and the Office of Emergency Management and Communications are working with Chicago Police Department commanders on an approach to carry out stings on motorists who drive dangerously near walkers at hazardous intersections. But the Police Department has not yet committed to using plainclothes officers to pose as pedestrians, said police spokeswoman Monique Bond. It could be city traffic-control aides working with uniformed police, officials said. At first, warning citations will be issued to drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians. Tougher steps would follow, officials said.

The city had been focusing on decreasing pedestrians' risks, but the effort gained momentum in May after a hit-and-run driver struck and killed a 4-year-old girl, Maya Hirsch, who was walking with her family near Lincoln Park Zoo.

Mayor Richard Daley named Heramb co-chair of the newly formed Mayor's Pedestrian Advisory Council, which will meet in January for the first time.

Under Daley's Safe Streets for Chicago plan, the look of intersections will begin to change. Corners will be equipped with "bulb-outs"--an extension of the curb that reduces the roadway in traffic lanes. With the "bulb-outs," pedestrians will be in the street for a shorter amount of time.

Bulb-outs will be installed first at spots where there are many senior citizens and schoolchildren. A number of bulb-outs have been installed recently on the North Side near the lakefront, including at Foster Avenue and Marine Drive.

Also islands in street medians, called "pedestrian refuges," will be constructed to provide places for pedestrians to wait if they cannot cross streets in the allotted "walk" time. The crosswalks at some intersections will be elevated several inches to make pedestrians more visible to drivers, city officials say.

One example that the city is testing is in a parking lot on Science Drive at the Museum of Science and Industry. The raised crosswalk also creates a speed bump to remind drivers to slow down.

Crosswalk striping also is being intensified with bolder lines to alert drivers to pedestrian traffic.

"The new design guidelines are intended to remind pedestrians that they are equal users of the road and to remind drivers to give pedestrians the respect they deserve," said Beth Gutelius, pedestrian safety coordinator at Chicago Department of Transportation.

Safe Streets' educational component also will remind pedestrians to walk at crosswalks and intersections and avoid crossing in the middle of a block or against traffic signals. Counselors will be sent to schools to encourage children to make eye contact with drivers before trying to cross streets and to wear reflective clothing when going out after dark or in bad weather.

Plans are under way as well to convert some four-lane streets into three lanes with marked bicycle lanes.

Officials are plastering the city with public service announcements to counter the image of aggressive driving behavior that is often portrayed in advertisements for new cars, such as a recent TV commercial for the Nissan 350Z that brags the roadster "Goes Like Hell."

City-sponsored posters on the back of downtown newspaper racks show schoolchildren walking along with a reminder to motorists to slow down. Other posters warn drivers to obey the law, showing a Chicago police officer using a hand-held laser device to enforce the speed limit.

These measures are in addition to the planned expansion of red-light-running enforcement cameras and more pedestrian countdown traffic signals, officials said.

Red-light-running violations have declined 55 percent with the surveillance cameras, said Andrew Velasquez, executive director of the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications. Drivers caught on camera running red lights receive $90 tickets in the mail.

"This program has allowed us to change negative driving behavior, and it has saved countless numbers of pedestrians and drivers from fatal injuries," Velasquez said.

Thirty red-light cameras are installed citywide, with 20 more scheduled to be added beginning this month and 50 more next year, Velasquez said.

A primary goal of the Safe Streets for Chicago campaign is making it more attractive and fun to walk, officials said.

People are walking less than folks did a generation ago. Part of the reason is that it has become more dangerous, but the unhealthy trend also is increasingly difficult to buck in a society of couch potatoes, experts say.

Children, who are walking less on average than at any point in the last 30 years, are a special concern. Childhood obesity has become a national health crisis because of decreased physical activity, said Dr. Katherine Kaufer Christoffel, a pediatrician who is co-chair of the Mayor's Pedestrian Advisory Council.

It is difficult to recommend that parents encourage their children to walk more without also significantly reducing the risks of walking in urban areas, said Christoffel, noting that children between ages 5 and 9 are among the age groups at the highest risk of getting injured in a pedestrian accident. Intoxicated young adults and the elderly also fall into the high-risk group, she said.

"If you don't have cars racing through residential streets, parents won't be as concerned about their children walking around," said Christoffel, who is the director of the Center for Obesity Management and Prevention at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.

"We need to get more people walking, safely," she said.