Pedestrian vs. car accidents double the last two years combined

Originally published in the Alexandria Echo Press.

A special meeting took place at Widseth's Big Ole room on Tuesday, Nov. 2 between MnDOT officials, Mayor Bobbie Osterberg and city engineers after 2021 pedestrian vs. car accidents in Alexandria nearly doubled compared to 2020 and 2019.

In 2019 and 2020, there was a combined total of five pedestrians vs. car accidents in Alexandria. This year, there have been nine.

"We don't have a great awareness of pedestrians in our community," said Alexandria Police Chief Scott Kent. "Even though we are growing in pedestrian and bicycle traffic, people are not used to looking for pedestrians in our busy and robust streets. I am not trying to make excuses. However, when you are driving and being aware of traffic, pedestrians are not always the first thing drivers are focused on."

Kent compared Alexandria to larger cities like New York and Chicago; Cities that are accustomed to seeing large volumes of pedestrians crossing roadways at one time.

"Although we have enough pedestrian traffic where pedestrians are being hit, we don't have enough groups of people crossing the roadway at once. It is not like downtown Chicago or New York where you have a large group of people crossing at one time," said Kent.

Kent doesn't place sole blame on either pedestrians or drivers. The accidents have occurred from a combination of unaware drivers and negligent pedestrians not following traffic signals.

"It is a shared responsibility. If you are going to share the roadway, then you have to share responsibility," said Kent. "My suggestion for drivers is to be more aware of pedestrians, focus on the roadways when approaching crosswalks, and give the pedestrians the right-of-way that is due. We are striving to make the situation better by discussing what we can do to improve it."

The most recent pedestrian vs. car incident resulted in the fatality of 76-year-old Mauno Silpala of Golden Valley. Silpala was struck at the intersection of Third Avenue and Hawthorne Street on Oct. 14.

Silpala's death prompted Alexandria Mayor Bobbie Osterberg to call for a special meeting between Minnesota Department of Transportation officials and city and county engineers to discuss possible solutions to the issue.

"This is a meeting about the elephant that has been sitting in this city for decades, and now we need to talk about it," Osterberg addressed the room. "I really want us to walk away from this meeting with a feeling that we are committed to doing something. I do not expect us to identify what that something is today, but as a community, we are very serious about this pedestrian safety issue."

The meeting — held in the Big Ole conference room at Widseth's Alexandria office building — opened up with everyone introducing themselves and expressing their goal of the meeting. Everyone had the same goal: Reduce the number of pedestrian vs. car accidents.

Along with Osterberg, others who attended included Jerilyn Swenson, MnDOToperations/program delivery manager; Trudy Kordosky, MnDOT traffic engineer; Tim Erickson, Douglas County engineer; Mike Weber, community development director/city planner; Blaine Green, civil engineer; Dane Bosl, Alexandria public works division director and Tim Schoonhoven, city engineer.

The meeting focused on Third Avenue traffic, projects that have worked and not worked in the past, and possible future projects to make Third Avenue safer for both drivers and pedestrians.

The first half of the meeting covered past projects and how they affected the community — narrowing the Broadway roadway and installing RRFB (Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon) lights, pedestrian-activated lights used to warn drivers when a pedestrian is entering a crosswalk.

The narrowing of Broadway was a success. According to Schoonhoven, crashes on Broadway have dropped 50%.

"You went from around 26 crashes to 13 on a five-year average," said Schoonhoven.

The RRFBs, temporarily installed in 2020 at the intersection of Third and Kenwood, were successful up to a certain point. One of the issues brought up by Schoonhoven is pedestrians hardly use them. And drivers in the left lane stopped less frequently than the driver in the right lane because the left lane driver's vision would be obstructed by the driver in the right lane who stopped for the pedestrian.

"Before the RRFB, around 5% to 10% percent of cars would stop for a pedestrian. After they were installed and pedestrians pushed the button, 75% to 80% of drivers would stop. It made a lot of difference, but the problem is that pedestrians would not push the button," said Schoonhoven.

However, Osterberg said she felt the beacons were not used long enough for drivers and pedestrians to get used to the system.

The meeting went on to focus its attention on the most dangerous intersections found on Third Avenue and what can be done to eliminate accidents in those "hot spots."

Ideas presented were to do an entire median closure along Third Avenue from Broadway to Nokomis Street, which raised the issue for drivers to easily access businesses, which led to the idea of only blocking off specific intersections, the ones with the most safety concerns.

"When getting into the options of closures, it's trying to coordinate pedestrian safety but also recognizing business access," said Swenson.

Everyone at the meeting agreed on closing the intersection of Hawthorne and Third Avenue but weren't sure on other intersections to close.

Other ideas were bringing back RRFBs and adding refuge islands at some of the crosswalks, allowing those crossing the roadway a safety point between crosswalks to wait for an opening to continue crossing. Another idea was to assemble a barrier on the median to prevent pedestrians from crossing at non-designated crossing areas.

Before anything is put into action, MnDOT will conduct a review of the presented options and develop a plan of action for how each option can be implemented in temporary stages and submit the plans back to the highway committee, which will determine if it fits the city's budget.

"We are still going to have fatalities. We will not be able to fix everything, but I would like to be responsive on this issue," said Schoonhoven.

Tips from MnDOT for safer roadways

When driving:

  • Watch for people walking, anywhere at any time.

  • Stop for people crossing the road.

  • Look in all directions before turning.

  • Slow down for people; slower speeds save lives.

  • Before passing stopped vehicles, check for people crossing the road.

When walking:

  • Be alert for turning vehicles.

  • Look for vehicles in all lanes of traffic before crossing.

  • People driving may not see you, day or night.

  • Cross in a well-lit area when possible.

  • Stand clear of parked cars and obstacles before crossing.

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