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Crosswalks: Motorists bear brunt of responsibility

September 27, 2013

By MIKE LAMM
    The death of a pedestrian struck and killed by a car while attempting to cross Monroe Street at the intersection of 5th Street in Decatur last week has prompted numerous questions following the incident. Paramount to the discussion are questions surrounding the proper function of traffic signals at intersections which also utilize electronic pedestrian crosswalk signals. In addition, the obligations and responsibilities of both pedestrians and those operating motor vehicles when entering or crossing an intersection have been raised by the tragedy.
    According to police reports, on Sept. 17 at 2:50 p.m., Rejena M. Bluhm, 47, E 250 N, Decatur, was southbound on 5th Street and stopped in the left turn lane waiting for the light to change to green. When it did, she entered the intersection and failed to see Beverly K. Case, 72, of Decatur, a pedestrian who was attempting to cross Monroe Street southbound. The Bluhm auto struck Case, knocking her to the pavement and causing incapacitating injuries. She later died at Parkview Memorial Hospital from those injuries.
    A local resident familiar with the intersection called the Decatur Daily Democrat following the incident, pointing out what he felt was a glitch in the signaling system which potentially could have contributed to the fatality.
    The caller noted that even though there is a crosswalk signal at the intersection, the traffic signal for the left turn lane on 5th Street remains green even when the crosswalk signal is activated, creating the impression that both pedestrian and driver are clear to proceed. The call was later made more poignant when a local resident attending the past weekend's activities at St. Mary's Catholic Church Fall Festival posted a message on Facebook concerning a similar incident at the same intersection.
    According to the post, he and his grandchildren (along with another family) were waiting to cross Monroe Street from the north. When the light changed and the crosswalk system indicated it was safe for the pedestrians to cross, a southbound vehicle making a left turn onto Monroe Street abruptly turned in front of them, causing the adults to hold back the children from being struck by the turning car. Further angering the respondent was the fact that the driver of the car was unapologetic about the incident, responding with a flippant remark out an open window as he completed the turn in front of them. 
    That there is a problem at crosswalks throughout the city seems undeniable. But a remedy is less clear.
    Questions have been raised about the possibility of electronically connecting and calibrating the crosswalk signal with the traffic light so that once the crosswalk signal is activated, the left turn traffic light remains red for the 20 seconds that the crosswalk signal allows for a pedestrian to cross the street. On the surface, the suggestion appears to have merit.
    However, Dana Plattner, a professional traffic engineer with the Fort Wayne office of the Indiana Department of Transportation, on Tuesday morning said the suggestion is not realistically feasible.
    "The only way we could come close to ensuring the safety of pedestrians crossing a roadway is to shut down all vehicle traffic completely. Obviously, we can't do that," he said.
    Plattner pointed out a subtle but definitive difference between a traffic light which displays a solid green ball (or circle) and one which displays a green turn arrow. The light for the left turn lane at the intersection, Plattner stated, displays a solid green ball, indicating a driver in that lane may proceed with caution. "We don't have a left turn indicator light" at the intersection, he added.
    It is the responsibility of both the driver and the pedestrian in this particular scenario, Plattner said, "to ensure they can enter the intersection safely." The pedestrian always has the right of way when he/she is legally crossing a roadway at a designated crosswalk, he said. The onus is on the driver of a motor vehicle to ensure there are no obstructions prior to entering an intersection.
    The substitution of a left turn arrow light to replace the sold green light might be an alternative for consideration, Decatur Mayor John Schultz admitted, but added "it's not our traffic light and it's not our crosswalk." Both are owned and installed by the state, Schultz stated, adding he had also been made aware of the potential problem by concerned citizens and that he too would be contacting transportation officials to discuss possible solutions.
    Decatur Police Chief Ken Ketzler agreed with Plattner that the traffic light was "working as it should" on the day of the accident. Responding to criticism that no citation was issued, Ketzler acknowledged escalated emotions by those on both sides of the issue, but stated a thorough investigation by his department "absolutely did not justify" the issuance of a citation.
    "It was a tragic accident," Ketzler admitted, "but we don't feel there was anything out of the ordinary" to warrant a citation. Bluhm was not speeding, was not texting and was not using her cell phone at the time of the incident, he said. His department determined Bluhm was not negligent and was not driving in a criminal manner. He acknowledged the county prosecutor could still file charges against Bluhm in the case, but that it was unlikely the prosecutor would find "just cause" to bring the case to trial.
             
      

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