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Want to avoid a ticket? Here's one thing Bellingham police are focusing on this year

Take care when using crosswalks in Bellingham

Pedestrian safety video from the City of Bellingham
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Pedestrian safety video from the City of Bellingham

Nearly 30 drivers were ticketed for failing to yield to pedestrians in a marked crosswalk earlier this month as Bellingham Police stepped up a year-long campaign to reduce traffic collisions between cars and people on foot or bicycle.

Prompted by a rash of serious injuries and two deaths in early 2017, the city is expanding a crosswalk-safety campaign that began with education and has now turned to enforcement, said Sqt. Carr Lanham, with the Police Department's traffic division.

"Before, (drivers) were just getting warnings, to educate people," Lanham said. "Now, they're getting tickets."

Lanham said the city's police and public works departments paired with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission and received grants and funding totaling $112,000 to drive Travel with Care, a program that started last April.

An educational video was released last summer and for several months police officers handed out information cards as a warning to drivers they pulled over for violating the law requiring them to stop for pedestrians.

"Our biggest concern right now is pedestrians getting hit in crosswalks," Lanham said. "It's for pedestrians, vehicles, bicycles to travel with care and look out for everybody."

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For several months, Bellingham drivers received this warning card when they were stopped for failing to yield to a pedestrian. Now they're getting tickets, police said. City of Bellingham Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Lanham said that in a four-hour period March 10, police officers cited 28 drivers for crosswalk violations, plus one for cell phone use, two for driving without insurance and one driver for not wearing a seat belt.

"Why, why, why don’t you follow the traffic laws?" asked LaVonne Olsen of Lake Samish, in response to an inquiry on The Bellingham Herald's page on Facebook.

During the March 10 enforcement effort, Lanham stood on Holly Street and began to cross near High Street, as other officers watched to see if drivers would stop.

That intersection was chosen because the road is three lanes wide and drivers have a clear view downhill from Billy Frank Jr. Street, Lanham said.

Once, Lanham said he thought he was going to be run over, and he had to step back to the curb.

It's a $136 ticket for not yielding to someone crossing in a crosswalk, he said. And a crosswalk isn't just those two white lines for pedestrians – a crosswalk exists anywhere two streets intersect, whether it's marked or not, according to state law.

"One of my pet peeves is that a significant percentage of drivers do not understand that pedestrians have the right-of-way in unmarked crosswalks, mainly because they don’t know what an 'unmarked crosswalk' is," said Eileen Kadesh of Geneva.

"Every street corner is an unmarked crosswalk. There should be more signage reminding motor vehicle drivers that they need to stop for pedestrians crossing at any street corner."

By this time in March last year, there were five serious injury collisions in crosswalks – and a pedestrian and bicyclist were dead, according to the information from the city's website.

Travel with Care started quickly as city officials feared more deaths. But no more pedestrians or cyclists were killed in 2017.

According to state Department of Transportation records, there were 45 crashes involving cars and pedestrians last year in Bellingham, including one death and 11 serious injuries. There were also 45 crashes involving bicycles and cars, including one death and four serious injuries.

That was a rise in deaths and serious injuries from 2016, when WSDOT records show 37 car-pedestrian incidents including six serious injuries and no fatalities. WSDOT records show 37 car-bike incidents including one death and two serious injuries in 2016.

Incidents from 2016 are more in line with the frequency of car-bike and car-pedestrian incidents over time. But the spate of tragic incidents in early 2017 was worrying nonetheless, said Doug Dahl of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission and author of the weekly "Rules of the Road" column for The Bellingham Herald.

He said random spikes in traffic incidents sometimes have no explanation and that it's often hard for traffic experts to measure results in the short term.

"It's tough to tell on small data sets if what you're doing has an impact," Dahl said. But anecdotal evidence indicates that the education effort is working, he said.

Dahl said the educational campaign targeted pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers in an effort to help everyone learn the law and hopefully create some understanding among the three groups of road users.

"Each one thinks the others are worse," Dahl said.

That animosity was evident among readers of The Bellingham Herald's page on Facebook who responded to a question about their pet peeves last week.

"If you’re a bike, act like a car! Nothing makes me nuttier than watching bikes blow through traffic signals or fail to use their own hand signals," said Olsen, the Lake Samish resident.

"Now for those motorists. OH MY GAWD – sometimes it’s impossible to commute on a bike without updating your last will and testament every morning," Olsen said.

Marcus McGregor of Bellingham said he's nearly been hit by cyclists when he's in a crosswalk. "I waited for the walk sign to turn on Cornwall by the Rite-Aid and then entered the crosswalk. A bicyclist blew through the red light and nearly slammed into me if I hadn’t jumped out of the way in the last second," he said.

But it's distracted pedestrians and those whose dart into traffic that irk Matthew Simonds. "Pedestrians in parking lots and along roads with earphones in, glued to what they are texting or watching on their screen oblivious to everything going on around them" is bothersome, Simonds said.

"Cars proceeding through a crosswalk before the pedestrian clears the lane" anger Lauri McBeath of Bellingham.

Rachel Parker Graybill of Bellinghmam wants pedestrians to watch for traffic before they cross, even in a marked crosswalk.

"I continually see pedestrians push the button and head across the street without waiting for it to change or just crossing the street 10 to 15 feet away (from the crosswalk) expecting traffic to stop."

Those issues were addressed in a traffic safety video that the city produced last summer. The video's first car-pedestrian encounter — a scene orchestrated for the video — shows a person listening to headphones entering a marked crosswalk at a four-way stop. Even though the pedestrian is clearly approaching, a driver proceeds and nearly hits the pedestrian.

Bellingham's Travel with Care program also includes data about where and when pedestrians are most likely to be hit by a car.

According to figures in annual studies from 2012 to 2016, most car-pedestrian collisions in Bellingham — 62 percent — are in an intersection and of those, 21 percent occur in the road and 58 percent in a marked crosswalk.

Most (55 percent) happen in the daytime, 43 percent happen at night and 2 percent at dusk. Fall and winter months of October through January are the worst for car-pedestrian collisions and most occur from noon to 7 p.m., with a spike from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Sixty-two percent of drivers who hit a pedestrian were male, the data show.

Contributing factors include driver inattention (15 percent) and failure to yield (41 percent). There were no contributing factors for pedestrians in 64 percent of the incidents. Inattention on the pedestrian's part was a factor in six incidents.

Most crashes were clustered around downtown; on busy Samish Way in the Sehome neighborhood; on Lakeway east of Holly; around Alabama and Woburn; in the Barkley commercial area; and the Cordata area near Whatcom Community College and near Bellis Fair mall, especially around Bakerview and Northwest.

Dahl said he understands the frustration among pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. Each sees the other as an easy target, he said.

"It's not really a car versus bicycle debate. It's a good road user debate," said Dahl, who drives a car but also is an avid bike rider.

"I ride with a group of people who obey the law and are very safety conscious," he said. "In my world, cyclists are good drivers."

That's an issue that the Travel with Care program seeks to address, Lanham said.

"Pedestrians have strong opinions about who is right," Lanham said. "Bicyclists have strong opinions about who is right, and motorists have strong opinions about who is right. We're trying to get everybody on the same page. We all want to go back to our families at the end of the day."

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

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