BIG CITY: Taking it to the streets
By Kirk Ross
Regular readers of this paper know that right about this time of year we tend to start warning people to pay a little closer attention.
I want to start by reminding people, up high in this column, that there are a lot of new and freshly painted old crosswalks and that pedestrians in those crosswalks ALWAYS have the right of way. Stopping to let people cross is not just a really nice thing to do and a quaint local courtesy, it’s the damn law everywhere in the state of North Carolina and most other places as well.
Our annual encouragement to pay attention is not because we’re such safety freaks; it’s just that over the years, too many times local reporters from this paper and others have the gloomy responsibility of reporting on a fatal accident involving a vehicle and a pedestrian or bicyclist. Almost every one I’ve written or read about was avoidable and involved confusion or distraction.
As you might guess, in a college town these stories usually include comments from friends or relatives about the promise of the individuals, their course of study and what they hoped to do with their lives. If you’re new to town or are coming back and might have forgotten just how chaotic it is in the first couple of months of school, please excuse this harsh reminder, but we really don’t want the next person we have to write about to be you.
The number of accidents – especially downtown and especially car/bike or car/pedestrian accidents – jumps in the first couple of months of school. It makes sense given the increase in all kinds of traffic. There are more walkers, bikers, drivers and a lot more buses, and, as the semester wears on, there’s less daylight. It also makes sense given the number of new drivers, out-of-town visitors and, for the first couple of weeks, people driving U-Hauls or cars and SUVs stacked high with clothes and furnishings.
Throw into the mix the sheer number of people who must, must, take that phone call while cruising down a jam-packed street or stepping into a crosswalk. As we’ve seen all too many times, the combination of distraction and disassociation are deadly.
There’s a reason that Chapel Hill tried to ban cell phone use while driving and it’s not because we want to create a more courteous society. If you really want to scare yourself, stand at the corner of Weaver and Main streets in Carrboro or Columbia and Franklin streets in Chapel Hill and take an informal survey of the number of people who pass by either on foot or in a vehicle who are talking on their cell phones. One afternoon a couple years back, I sat and counted, and around one-third of the people I saw trying to navigate the streets were engaged in doing something other than driving.
Most commuters I know have horror stories of passing a person or being passed by a person obviously distracted by a phone conversation or, say, the report they’re reading at 70 mph.
Travel speeds aren’t that high downtown, but on a busy day it’s every bit as congested as I-40 and there are a whole lot of people around not encased by steel and protected by air bags.
One special note to you folks who like to jog through our streets jamming out to whatever it is you jam out to: Please turn it down and pay double attention to your surroundings for at least the next few months (and/or forever). We lost one of those really wonderful, really promising young people when she stepped into Cameron Avenue, unable to realize in time that she was jogging into the path of a town bus.
The young people entrusted to the care of our community are coming back soon. The dorms open next weekend. It’s exciting and chaotic and part of what makes this a special time of year. But please remember the basics: Look both ways before crossing the street, pay attention to the signals (’cause other people are), give pedestrians the right-of-way and (my new favorite old adage) hang up and drive.
Be careful out there, people. We wouldn’t want to lose you. Honest.
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