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Pedestrians face greater county challenges

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Published on: Thursday, May 23, 2013

By Donna Broadway

ROCKVILLE – It hasn’t been a good month to be a pedestrian .

There have been four accidents in two weeks, and three of them have been fatal. The latest victim, Jason Estabrook, 42, is in critical condition with injuries the police said are potentially life-threatening. As of press time on Wednesday, police have not received an update on Estabrook’s condition.

With three new victims, there have now been nine total pedestrian accident fatalities, including one bicyclist; there were six fatalities in 2012.  Since 2008, that number was lowest in 2012 and highest in 2008, when there were 19 fatalities.

Recent statistics from the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) show a shift from shared pedestrian and driver responsibility to drivers bearing the blame. Officials realize they may have a problem.

“We have learned that there is a 50/50 shift with pedestrians and drivers being at fault; in pedestrian collisions more recently, drivers are more at fault, so we’re trying to address that issue,” said Jeff Dunckel, pedestrian safety coordinator for MCDOT.

In an effort to combat this shift, county and municipal police have shifted their pedestrian enforcement stings from targeting pedestrians unsafely crossing the street to drivers who fail to stop or slow for pedestrians. In the stings, police officers not in uniform begin crossing at a crosswalk, and if the driver fails to stop, they receive a citation. Police have issued hundreds of tickets in the stings.

“Of the last three pedestrian accidents, one of them involves the lady who lost control of her vehicle and drove through the bus stop and hit a lady sitting at the bus shelter. There is nothing the police can do to prevent that one. The next one, a lady was standing on a medium strip panhandling, and two cars got in a crash in the roadway and one of them lost control and hit the lady on the medium strip; there is nothing the police can do about that one. We look at them on a case-by-case basis. The police department has been very aggressive in conducting pedestrian enforcement. Last year, we issued 1,600 citations to drivers and pedestrians who failed to yield the right of way to each other, and we are continuing to do those enforcement operations,” said Captain Thomas Didone, director of the Montgomery County Police Department’s traffic division.

MDOT is working with the state highway administration (SHA) to install accessible pedestrian safety signals, which are designed to assist blind pedestrians. The signal directs the pedestrian to the push button and then guides the pedestrian by indicating through sounds when it is clear to cross and when it is not safe.

The SHA has started installing the signals as part of a 10-year plan to install five each year. The county currently owns and operates 56 accessible pedestrian signals.

In addition, the agency works with Gwendolyn Ward, a mother who lost her 15-year-old daughter, Christina Morris-Ward, in a pedestrian accident on October 31, 2012, to spread the word about pedestrian safety. Ward’s daughter was walking to Seneca Valley High School when she was hit by Kevin Carlson, who said he did not see Morris-Ward; she was dressed in black pants and a dark Redskins hoodie at the time.

Carlson was not charged in the accident. Ward said though Carlson has expressed desire through others to speak with her, she has not spoken with him but welcomes the chance to.

Due to that accident, Ward celebrated her birthday, Mother’s Day and the birth of her first granddaughter, who will bear Christina’s middle name, Ashley, all without her youngest child.

“I am trying to make sure I do positive things to keep going. No parent should have to go through anything like this. My daughter was only 15 years old and I am not going to sit back and let my daughter’s death go without notice. So I am speaking out and joining forces and being involved in this pedestrian thing as much,” Ward said.

In April, Ward participated in Seneca Valley High School’s pedestrian enforcement campaign, even appearing in a video. Ward also participated in Safe Routes to School programs. She said she wants to start her own non-profit organization related to pedestrian awareness.

Ward has very simple advice for drivers and pedestrians.

“It’s like just pay attention, man. Everyone is in a rush and you’re driving a 3,000-pound vehicle or more and you have to be more aware of your surroundings as the next person,” Ward said. “Even when you’re driving, you don’t just have to look out for pedestrians, you have to look out for other cars, and sometimes they’re not paying attention. My main purpose is to educate.”

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