Walking can be hazardous to plugged-in pedestrians

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After more than a decade of trying to discourage distracted driving, safety experts are concerned about a similar phenomenon among pedestrians.

With iPods and smart phones occupying the ears and eyes of a growing number of those walking the streets, officials are worried that a four-year trend of declining pedestrian deaths may be nearing an end.

The Governors Highway Safety Association reported this week that pedestrian traffic fatalities rose slightly in the first half of 2010, compared with the same six months of 2009.

"While the increase is small -- 0.4 percent -- it is notable because overall traffic fatalities during this period were significantly down, and this comes on the heels of four straight years of steady declines in pedestrian deaths," the association said.

The report also speculated that healthy lifestyles programs that encourage walking and a growing emphasis on walkable communities might have played a part.

State officials further suggested that the economy might have people walking rather than driving.

"We've been focusing on the drivers, but perhaps we need to focus some attention on distracted walkers," said Jonathan Adkins, GHSA communications director, who said he had stopped listening to his iPod during his 20-minute walk to work.

"Combine a walker/runner on an [iPod] with a driver on his cell phone and you have a recipe for disaster," he said.

Nationally, pedestrian traffic deaths fell from 4,892 in 2005 to 4,092 in 2009, an average decline of 200 per year.

In a statement released with the report, the association's chairman, Vernon F. Betkey Jr., said pedestrian deaths account for about 12 percent of all traffic fatalities, a "small but significant portion."

"Given that we have made so much progress in this area, GHSA is concerned to see this reversal," he said.

"Anyone who travels in a busy city has seen countless pedestrians engrossed in conversation or listening to music while crossing a busy street. Just as drivers need to focus on driving safely, pedestrians need to focus on walking safely -- without distractions."

Pennsylvania saw a slight decline in pedestrian fatalities during the first half of 2010 -- 72, compared with 76 for the same period a year earlier.

The report came out on the same day that a Verona man was killed as he tried to cross Allegheny River Boulevard.

Marshall Warner, 63, died shortly after 3 p.m. Thursday at UPMC Presbyterian. A car driven by a 79-year-old woman hit him at 9:30 a.m. in the 800 block of Allegheny River Boulevard. Verona police said it was an accident.

The report said there was no "silver bullet" to reduce pedestrian deaths because they are caused by a variety of circumstances. It recommended that states make pedestrian safety a priority; analyze crash data to detect problem areas; and step up enforcement to ensure that drivers yield to pedestrians in crosswalks.

In Pittsburgh, the city's public works department has begun to roll out "countdown pedestrian signals" that have a digitized clock ticking down the time left to cross a street safely before the signal changes.

The new equipment is federally mandated and must be installed when a signal needs to be replaced or the intersection is updated and must be brought up to existing federal standards.

"When it starts flashing, 'Don't Walk,' it also counts down so you know how much time is left," said Amanda L. Purcell, a municipal traffic engineer with the city. "Instead of seeing the traffic signal turning yellow in front you, you already know you have four seconds left," for example.

The mandate does less to prevent jaywalking and more to give pedestrians additional information that can lead to safer crossings.

Ms. Purcell did not know how many countdown signals have been installed so far, but she said the city began putting them up before the new federal standard took effect last year.

Several have been placed in Oakland, and others have appeared in the Golden Triangle along parts of Stanwix Street and on Market Street by the site of the new Three PNC Plaza tower.

There are 610 signalized intersections in Pittsburgh. Many Downtown streets are between 36 and 40 feet wide. Each signal countdown is timed differently depending on the width of the intersection and an estimated average walking speed of 31/2 feet per second.

The city is putting together a five-year plan to upgrade signals at 34 intersections in the central business district. Also included are plans for audible signals to benefit visually impaired individuals. The signal will announce the street name and tell pedestrians that the walk sign is on.

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit "The Roundabout," the Post-Gazette's transportation blog, at post-gazette.com. Staff writer Jonathan Silver contributed.


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