Blind Pedestrian Killed; Intersection Design Contributing Cause
by Dona Sauerburger, COMS
Metropolitan Washington Orientation and Mobility Association (WOMA); March, 1999 newsletter
Monday, January 18, 1999, was Martin Luther King's Day. That evening, long after it was dark, members of the Virginia chapter of the National Federation of the Blind planned to meet at a restaurant a few blocks away from the home of one of their members, Joseph G. Shankle Jr. They were planning to advocate the next day with Virginia legislators to increase computer accessibility.
Accountability for safe pedestrian access
Joe Shankle was manager of the cafeteria in the federal building, one of Richmond's largest cafeterias, since 1972 when he became the first blind vendor in Virginia to have his own cafeteria. His wife Bert, who is visually impaired, worked in the cafeteria with him. He was president of the Virginia Blind Merchants Association, and was frequently honored at state and national levels for his work.
The restaurant where Mr. Shankle was heading was one of his favorites. To reach it, he had to cross West Broad Street where it intersects a secondary street, Sunnybrook Road. West Broad Street is 7 lanes wide there, with a 4-foot wide median strip.
According to the engineers at the Virginia Department of Transportation, that intersection is semi-actuated, which means that the light will turn green to cross West Broad Street only when a vehicle pulls up to the intersection on Sunnybrook. The signal will stay green only long enough for that vehicle or vehicles to cross the intersection. In many situations at similar intersections, this means the light sometimes is green only 5-7 seconds.
At intersections like this, the engineers often install a pedestrian button that people can use to make sure the light stays green long enough for them to cross the street.
However, even though this intersection is semi-actuated, there is no pedestrian button there. Thus, pedestrians crossing West Broad Street, including Joe and Bert Shankle, are unable to get a green signal to cross unless a driver also happens to want to cross the street from Sunnybrook Road. Even then, the light won't stay green long enough for pedestrians to cross West Broad Street unless there is a long line of traffic on Sunnybrook Road also wanting to cross.
According to the Henrico County police, the first witnesses who saw Mr. Shankle were driving past him along West Broad when they saw him standing at the median strip, waiting to cross the second half of the street. They turned around to help him, but before they could return to the intersection (while the light was still green for traffic on West Broad Street), he had started crossing from the median strip. A pickup truck hit him in the last lane.
He was apparently trying to cross during a break in traffic. He wore a hooded coat, and may not have been able to hear as well as he normally does. It was very dark, and the driver said he didn't see him till it was too late.
This death was yet another tragedy that could have been avoided if the intersection had been designed appropriately for pedestrians. Fortunately, those who are responsible for designing intersections are being made accountable for providing for pedestrians. In April 1997, according to the October 1, 1998 Road Management & Engineering Journal, the State of South Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that South Carolina's Department of Transportation (SC DOT) owed damages to a child, Rebekah, who was hit by a car because the signal interval at the intersection where she was hit was too short for a safe pedestrian crossing. The injury caused Rebekah to miss a year of school, caused permanent facial disfigurement, and changed her vision. Additionally, she now has other physical and mental limitations.
Advocating for safety and access
Rebekah's injury occurred in 1992 when she was 12 years old. She had stayed after school to talk with her teacher, and missed the bus. On her way home, she started to cross a 7-lane street at the intersection during the green light. But by the time she reached the median strip, the light was already changing. She paused, but when the cars in the two lanes closest to her stopped to allow her to finish crossing the street, she proceeded. Unfortunately, the driver of the car in the farthest lane could not see Rebekah, and struck her as she attempted to get across.
Just like the intersection where Joe Shankle was killed, the intersection where Rebekah was hit was semi-actuated but had no pedestrian button to prolong the signal for pedestrians. The minimum time for the green phase for a single car to cross the street there was only 8 seconds, but the average pedestrian (walking at 4 feet/second) needs 28 seconds to cross.
The SCDOT claimed that it was justified in not installing pedestrian buttons at this intersection because there were not enough pedestrians to warrant it under the criteria outlined in the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices. However, the Manual requires that in order to exercise discretion, a thorough investigation is required, and SCDOT did not show that it weighed and considered the criteria or “warrants” when designing the intersection.
Pedestrians crossing at such intersections have little choice but to cross at least partially while their signal is red, as Rebekah and Joe did, or run across the street. Surely pedestrians have as much a right to safe access to streets as drivers do. However, various jurisdictions have different policies regarding pedestrians' rights to safely access their intersections. In Maryland, Prince George's County is proud of their policy to provide all their actuated intersections with pedestrian buttons, regardless of whether anyone normally crosses there. In contrast, Maryland's State Highway Administration (MD SHA) provides pedestrian buttons only at those intersections which they determine warrant them. This is only about a third of their actuated intersections, according to Gene Straub, Deputy Director of MD SHA's Office of Traffic and Safety when he spoke to WOMA in September 1997. That means two thirds of their actuated intersections have no pedestrian buttons, including many that are between residential areas and businesses that residents might want to reach.
Many people, both blind and sighted, don't know that some intersections and signals are designed inadequately for pedestrians, nor that this was done intentionally because of policy. They also don't realize that the intersections and signals can be designed (or re-designed) to provide for the safety of pedestrians, and they don't think they have a right to request or demand it. When I asked several blind people what they'd do if they lived where they had to cross a street like Joe Shankle did, one had no idea what to do, and the other said she'd move. Neither considered calling the engineering department responsible for that intersection and requesting a pedestrian button so that people could cross safely.
Return to Traffic Signals
Intersection designs and technologies exist that can make intersections accessible to pedestrians, such as pedestrian buttons and leading pedestrian intervals, as well as accessible pedestrian signals to make the signal information available to blind people. As O&M specialists, we need to educate our students and clients about their rights, about designs and technologies available for pedestrians, how to advocate for them, and how to interact with the engineers and planners to get what they need to cross their streets safely.
Advocates could improve the safety of pedestrians significantly if they would consider as a top priority the issue of providing pedestrian buttons at every actuated intersection.
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