In Wednesday's Chapel Hill Town Council meeting, UNC senior Ellie Heffernan recounted her experience of nearly being hit by a car while riding her electric scooter down Hillsborough Street.
A driver had failed to see her as they were driving out of an apartment complex near campus.
“I was almost really, seriously injured," Heffernan said. "It’s good that I have a helmet, and I hope people will hear about that and choose to wear helmets when they ride."
Chapel Hill has seen an increase in bicycle and pedestrian accidents in recent weeks. Many community members who attended the Town Council meeting discussed pedestrian and bicyclist safety and said the safety issues impacted them on a daily basis.
Pattern of traffic accidents
Between Dec. 31 and Feb. 1, six people were injured by cars in five different bicycle and pedestrian crashes in Chapel Hill, including the Jan. 26 accident when cyclist Nicholas Watson was struck by a car door while riding on Franklin Street. Watson died on Feb. 4.
The six-accident total does not include the crash at Northside Elementary, when a driver crashed through a fence and struck playground equipment, Chapel Hill Transportation Planning Manager Bergen Watterson said at the Town Council meeting.
Following this pattern of traffic accidents, the Chapel Hill Police Department has increased pedestrian safety enforcement.
As of Friday, the department has conducted 36 pedestrian safety enforcement operations this month, which have resulted in five drivers charged.
The N.C. Department of Transportation controls many of the roads in Chapel Hill, which creates a barrier to infrastructure changes, Watterson said in an email to The Daily Tar Heel.
“NCDOT often requires lengthy and costly traffic studies to evaluate proposed changes to its roadways,” Watterson said. “These can be barriers in and of themselves for a Town like Chapel Hill that doesn't always have that capacity in-house."
In an analysis of recent crashes, the Town noted that while the NCDOT maintains 44 percent of road miles, about 78 percent of pedestrian crashes and 93 percent of cyclist crashes were on NCDOT roads in 2020.
Aaron Moody, a communications officer for the NCDOT, said the department is working with the Town to make the roads safer.
"The vehicle and pedestrian traffic has grown in this area as a whole, and it’s a fluid thing too, and so is how to address it from a safety standpoint,” Moody said. “We are taking it all very seriously and being proactive and are going to do all we can for pedestrian safety."
Increasing biker and pedestrian safety
Town staff presented plans to increase safety for bikers and pedestrians during the council meeting.
“We are trying to create a program that changes the design of our community and our roads with addressing speed limits and speeding throughout town, increasing safe transportation options and examining how norms and rules related to mobility can change," Watterson said during the meeting.
Chapel Hill is currently employing a Vision Zero strategy, first adopted in October, with the goal of eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2031.
Vision Zero is a program that analyzes crash report data and uses that information to determine the most effective locations and technologies for increasing safety.
At the meeting, CHPD Investigations Captain Donnie Rhoads described several other safety programs the Town is participating in. These include the Staff Bike-Ped Team, which addresses community member safety concerns, and Watch for Me NC, a program that provides extra training for police in bike and pedestrian laws.
Failure to yield to a pedestrian could lead to more than $300 worth of penalties, according to a Feb. 2 Town press release.
“While you would certainly think that concern for your fellow citizens would be enough to inspire you to modify unsafe behaviors, we hope that an awareness of the significant fees and potential for liability will modify those behaviors too,” Chris Blue, police chief and executive director for community safety, said at the Town Council meeting.
This increased enforcement, along with new solid white lines, flashing beacons and new curb-running bike lanes are part of the Town's response to the recent pedestrian and bicycle accidents.
Blue said he hopes police enforcement efforts at crosswalks can decrease as more long-term solutions are implemented.
“We agree that the best responses to the challenges we are experiencing to bike-ped safety are those that involve meaningful environmental and engineering changes,” Blue said. “We know that enforcement is only part of a holistic response to creating that safe system in our community.”
Heffernan said new infrastructure and an education effort encouraging helmet-wearing could help keep community members safe.
UNC Campus Safety's website echoes the importance of wearing a helmet when biking. It also mentions avoiding distractions, like listening to music while riding, and the importance of being aware of the rules of the road.
“Humans are going to make mistakes, and crashes are going to happen,” Watterson said. “The goal that we have is to make the infrastructure and policy changes so that crashes, when they do happen, don't result in serious injury or death.”
Editor's Note: Ellie Heffernan is a former a reporter for the DTH.
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