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Westport Police Aim to Improve Pedestrian Safety

WESTPORT, Conn. – If you think pedestrians always have the right-of-way, you'd better be careful crossing the road. This is the kind of incorrect assumption Westport police hope to address through a comprehensive pedestrian safety plan.

Over the past four years, six pedestrian vs. motor vehicle accidents have been reported in town. Three of those accidents were fatal. With a goal of improving pedestrian safety, Westport Police Chief Dale Call said the department is developing a plan that would include pedestrian education, driver education and enforcement.

"When I first looked at the problem, it seemed like a very easy thing to solve," Call said in an email. "But frankly, an awful lot of it involves some significant changes in the driving culture that exists in the area — not just Westport — as well as a myriad of other things that take a driver's attention away from the road, and oftentimes a pedestrian's as well."

The plan's first component would be pedestrian education, he said. The goal would be re-educating the public on motor vehicle and pedestrian laws, he said. It would include, for example, important safety points to remember, such as when and where to cross a street.

In the most recent pedestrian accident, a 45-year-old New Milford woman was hit by an SUV when she tried crossing Post Road East near Playhouse Square. The woman, police said, was not in a crosswalk. She was found at fault and given a ticket.

On Nov. 23 , a car hit a 19-year-old Bridgeport woman as she tried crossing the Post Road near Shake Shack. She, too, was not in a crosswalk and was found at fault, police said.

On Dec. 11, 2010, a 93-year-old Stamford man was struck downtown as he tried crossing the Post Road near Restoration Hardware. He died two weeks later from his injuries, and according to police, was not in the designated crosswalk when he was hit.

Although many people may believe pedestrians always have the right of way, Capt. Sam Arciola said that's not true.

"Each pedestrian crossing a roadway at any point other than within a marked crosswalk shall yield the right-of-way to each vehicle upon such roadway," he said, citing Sec. 14-300b of the state statute .

This means pedestrians have a responsibility to wait for vehicles when they are not walking in a crosswalk. Even when crossing in a crosswalk, Arciola said pedestrians should always do so cautiously, as drivers may not see walkers.

In December 2008, a car struck and killed Westport resident William Ford as he crossed near 1655 Post Road E. in a designated crosswalk. The driver was not charged because, according to reports, Ford, 49, crossed when oncoming traffic was too close to the crosswalk.

Two years later, Westport resident Sharon Broecking , 62, was hit and killed as she crossed the Post Road at Westfair Drive. She, too, was in the designated crosswalk. Police sought to charge the driver with negligent homicide with a motor vehicle, but Norwalk Superior Court denied the charge .

Two months after Broecking's death, a Westport woman was hit by an SUV as she crossed the Post Road downtown near Starbucks . She was using the crosswalk, and the driver was found at fault and ticketed.

The plan's next component would be making sure all of the town's crosswalks are properly marked, signed and unobstructed, Call said. The next steps, he said, would then include enforcement, starting with pedestrians.

"That involves ticketing pedestrians who do not obey the law until we have enough compliance to begin working on the drivers, whose educational component needs to be ongoing at the same time," he said.

Enforcement programs, he added, involve much work, such as measuring distances from crosswalks, identifying response times, determining the point where a driver should see a pedestrian and where they should be able to stop in time.

For the plan to work, Call said a dedicated, consistent campaign is needed. Otherwise, any improvements made wouldn't last.

Call first mentioned the creation of the plan last March. However, he said "staffing and logistical problems" hampered any major developments. He said the department was hoping to receive grant to get the ball rolling on the educational aspects of the plan, but that fell through.

He said he hopes the department can start making headway on this plan soon, because public safety is the department's priority.

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