CROSSWALKS NOT WITHOUT RISK

August 31, 2001 12:00 am

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

Trying to cross a La Grande street in a crosswalk is, statistically at least, safer than crossing streets in other Oregon communities.

But theres still a risk involved.

During five special crosswalk stings conducted at different intersections during August, La Grande police determined that most drivers 87 percent yielded to pedestrians. Only 13 percent tried to drive through the crosswalk without watching for pedestrians.

In straight numbers, during 16 daytime hours while police watched at the five crosswalks, 872 attempts were made by a pedestrian to cross a street or highway in a legal crossing zone.

The intersections were marked by orange traffic cones either in the streets or on the edges of the streets well in advance of the crosswalks during the times the police were watching. Marked police cars were nearby.

In spite of the often visible officers and the traffic cones, 116 drivers were either warned or received traffic citations for endangering pedestrians.

La Grande Police Sgt. Phil Myer thinks that La Grandes drivers did a fair job of being aware of pedestrians, at least according to reports hes seen from other cities.

In some cities, Myer said, only about 50 percent of drivers have yielded to pedestrians in crosswalks.

The August crosswalk stings were funded by a state grant to improve traffic and pedestrian safety. Union had conducted a pedestrian safety program on its streets earlier in the summer.

The public had to be notified in advance that the program would be occurring, according to the requirements of the funding, and the traffic cones were set out at carefully marked distances from the crosswalks so that police and drivers could see where pedestrians were and how close the drivers came to them.

This program gives the drivers so much leeway, Myer said. Officers working in town dont need to give drivers (not giving pedestrians the right of way) that much leeway.

While the current sting operation is over, Myer expects the police department will be seeking further funding to continue pedestrian safety programs.

The crosswalk stings didnt turn up any huge surprises. But Myer noted it did give police baseline information about who was oblivious to pedestrians drivers in every age category and dispelled the myth that young drivers were the worst.

The oldest driver cited was 88, the youngest 16. While drivers between 20 and 30 were cited most often, Myer was quick to say that they were also among the most frequently seen at the sting sites. Eight drivers over age 70 were cited, but drivers in their 30s, 40, 50s and 60s, were also cited at regular rates.

Police asked those people who were warned or cited what explanation they had for not stopping for the pedestrians. Only one person responded that they were using a cell phone, while 52 people simply said they hadnt seen the pedestrian.

Seven people said they didnt think they had to stop, four admitted to not paying attention, and one person said they had an open container of pop and didnt want to spill it. A variety of other reasons were given, some indicating that drivers were unclear of when they had to stop for pedestrians.

One discouraging note for police were that the most offenders seen were at the Adams Avenue crossing by Hemlock Street, which has a stretch of street between lights and seems to cause drivers to ignore or speed past waiting pedestrians.

Despite the presence of the police, officers conducting the sting would see five or six drivers go past without stopping for waiting pedestrians. All the drivers couldnt be stopped, Myer said, because there werent enough chase vehicles to stop them all.

During the stings, only one driver stopped was also arrested. That was for driving with a suspended license.