Due to recent accidents involving pedestrians and bicyclists in Chapel Hill, some community members have expressed concern over pedestrian safety.
According to a March report from the Governors Highway Safety Association, there was an 11 percent increase in pedestrian traffic fatalities across North Carolina, as well as a 4.8 percent increase nationwide from 2019 to 2020.
The report also found that North Carolina had the fifth-highest number of pedestrian fatalities in the country during the same period.
Pedestrians in danger
Heidi Perry, a Carrboro Biking Coalition founding member and BikeWalk NC board member, has first-hand experience of the growing danger on roads.
“I was actually hit on my bike by a driver — not hurt because I steered away from a full-force impact — and the driver admitted to me that he was overwhelmed with pandemic issues and that he just wasn’t paying attention,” she said in an email.
Randy Smith, a Chapel Hill community member, said he has also seen a decrease in pedestrian safety, specifically on Estes Drive.
He said the recent accident on Estes was very unfortunate, especially because he knows one of the teenagers who were struck.
"One of them was close to my heart," he said. "So that breaks a lot of us in the community."
He also said the accident was something that could have been prevented with better safety measures in place, such as a traffic light or stop sign.
Katharine Kollins, who lives near Estes Drive, said she rarely sees drivers respect the school zone speed limit when when she walks her children to school.
“The crosswalk where the accident was is particularly egregious," she said. "I have stood there before I'm trying to go out for a jog, and I will stand at one side of that crosswalk and have 15 cars blow by me before even one sees that somebody is waiting to cross the road.”
Alex Carrasquillo, public information officer for Chapel Hill Police & Fire, said in an email that Road to Zero Initiative is one way Chapel Hill is working to limit the number of pedestrian crashes.
The initiative is a program through the National Safety Council and aims to eliminate traffic-related pedestrian fatalities by 2050.
"The Town’s Pedestrian Safety Action plan is a key part of this goal," he said. "It lays out strategies to address pedestrian safety concerns through policy, infrastructure, and programming."
Carrasquillo also said the Chapel Hill Police Department conducts regular speed and pedestrian safety enforcement operations to monitor traffic safety. Six of these operations are scheduled for February.
Smith and Perry each emphasized that safety measures should be put in place for pedestrians.
"I am definitely an advocate and a believer that there should be more signs or lights that could be placed around the town to help people slow down or know that there are crosswalks," Smith said.
Jonah Garson, a Chapel Hill attorney running to represent Chapel Hill and Carrboro in the N.C. House of Representatives, said he would like to see protected bike lanes and mechanisms for slowing down traffic in Orange County.
He thinks the root of the problem is in regulations from the General Assembly that limit the ways communities can address traffic safety.
Estes Drive and Franklin Street are both maintained and controlled by the N.C. Department of Transportation, which means Chapel Hill has limited ways to address pedestrian safety.
John Rees, president of the Bicycle Alliance of Chapel Hill, said the NCDOT has historically had a "curb-to-curb mentality" when it comes to managing roads, meaning it focuses only on what happens on the road where cars are driving.
“Things like sidewalks, crosswalks, intersections for people, are really only a secondary matter for them," he said. "Their focus is getting cars moving and moving efficiently."
Garson said pedestrian safety is not a new problem in Chapel Hill.
“People have been sounding the alarm for things like Estes Drive and the intersection of Estes and MLK for a long time,” he said. “People have been wringing their hands about how pedestrian- and cyclist-unfriendly Franklin Street is.”
Smith emphasized the need to update pedestrian safety measures.
"It would be a smart and a great thing to do across the entire town, to put things in," Smith said. "Yeah, sure it spends a little bit of money, but it keeps people safe."
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