Legwork: Seeking safe passage in Maine crosswalks, on foot and on wheels
A bill in the Legislature would require drivers to stop for ‘vulnerable users’ at marked crossings.
I long for Michael every time I cross Portland’s Brighton Avenue at Wayside Street. I press the button that makes lights flash by the big, yellow pedestrian sign hanging over the painted crosswalk. I thrust out my arms with authority, just as he did. Then I pray that cars flying down the hill will pay attention.
A crosswalk should be a safe haven for pedestrians. But too often, it is the place where they get hit. More than a quarter of all Maine crashes involving pedestrians occur in crosswalks or at intersections with red lights where the pedestrian has the right of way, according to the Maine Department of Transportation.
A bill now before the Maine Legislature (L.D. 1301) would give added protection to pedestrians and other so-called “vulnerable users,” including bicyclists, people in wheelchairs, joggers, construction workers, horseback riders, skateboarders and motorcyclists.
One of the bill’s key provisions involves crosswalks. Currently, drivers are supposed to yield to pedestrians going across the street. The bill would require that motorists come to a full stop for anyone in a crosswalk or indicating that they intend to cross. Drivers would be required to wait until the pedestrian finished crossing before continuing on their way.
The bill would enable police to issue traffic citations when motorists endanger vulnerable users, in addition to the criminal penalties now available.
Enforcement might be warranted when cars pass too closely or harass or hit someone, said James Tasse. He’s assistant director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, which is pushing for the measure.
The bill requires Maine driver education programs to teach new drivers about their responsibilities to share the road with all users. It also clarifies the responsibilities of cyclists to obey traffic laws such as stopping at red lights and stop signs and riding with traffic rather than against it.
Crash data from Maine DOT makes a compelling case that the state should do more to protect pedestrians and cyclists. Over the past six years, 67 pedestrians and nine cyclists were killed in crashes with motor vehicles. An additional 1,594 pedestrians and 1,161 cyclists were injured.
Eleven states have passed vulnerable user laws. The measure is particularly relevant in Maine because the state has the oldest median age in the country.
“We want to ensure that there are safe alternatives for people who are no longer driving,” said Lori Parham, state director of AARP Maine. That’s why her organization is supporting the bill.
Parham said people 65 and older make up 15 percent of Maine’s population, but they accounted for 35 percent of pedestrian fatalities between 2003 and 2010. She noted that many seniors need extra time to cross the street. “If an older person is hit,” she said, “they are much less likely to recover.”
David Grant, 73, ran a barbershop in Brewer for more than half a century. He was hit in a crosswalk while walking to work in December 2013. Almost exactly a year later, he was hit again at the very same spot. He died of his injuries last Dec. 29.
In February, Margaret McLeod, a 92-year-old great-grandmother from Cumberland, died from injuries suffered when she was hit in a marked crossing area of the Falmouth Walmart parking lot.
Police say it appears that the drivers who hit both Grant and McLeod were temporarily blinded. (In the Brewer case, a reconstruction by the state police suggests that the driver was blinded temporarily by the lights of an oncoming car. In the Falmouth case, which is still under investigation, Lt. John Kilbride of the Falmouth police said it appears the driver was temporarily blinded by the sun.) But a Maine DOT study found that motorists’ failure to yield the right of way was a significant factor in many other pedestrian crashes. The bill before the Legislature would give drivers clear direction to stop at crosswalks when they see pedestrians intending to use them.
Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, the bill’s sponsor, often runs with her dog on roads with a lot of traffic and little or no shoulder. She says some driversgo out of their way to give her enough room, while others are “downright rude.” She sees her bill as a way to educate all users about their responsibility to share the road safely.
Impatient drivers who zoom through crosswalks or honk at bicyclists put others at risk. So do cyclists who breeze through red lights. The vulnerable user bill, says Volk, “attempts to hold everyone to higher standards.”
Shoshana Hoose is a former Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram reporter and a former staffer at the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. Find her firstname.lastname@example.org.