By Jill Harmacinski
---- — METHUEN — Dressed in jeans, a blue T-shirt and black sneakers, Methuen Police Officer Don Craig repeatedly stepped into the crosswalk at 171 East St. on Friday afternoon.
Craig gets about a quarter of the way into the crosswalk, which is painted bright red with white borders. But instead of stopping, some drivers speed past the 30-year police officer. Others swerve around him, some even darting into the oncoming lane of traffic to avoid stopping for the “pedestrian.”
Parked nearby in unmarked cruisers, fellow officers Nick Dore and Jeff Smith are watching this ‘decoy’ scene, as it plays out over and over again. Some drivers do stop for Craig. But when they don’t, Dore and Smith hit their blue lights and pull over the drivers. Violators are handed $200 tickets for failure to stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk.
“People just aren’t paying attention,” said Craig.
Seems simple enough. A pedestrian is standing in crosswalk. He or she has the right of way. Drivers are legally required to stop.
But it doesn’t always happen that way and sometimes with catastrophic results. Nationally, a pedestrian is killed every two hours and injured every eight minutes in traffic crashes, according to police.
Methuen police, armed with a $5,000 grant, have recently been cracking down on crosswalk violators at spots all over the city. When they get pulled over, some drivers tell police they just didn’t see the pedestrian in the crosswalk. Police issued dozens of tickets after Friday’s stings at various locations around the city.
According to state law, all drivers must yield to a pedestrian if they are in a marked crosswalk and crosswalk traffic signals are not in operation there.
The state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security issued $192,000 in crosswalk grants to support bicycle and pedestrian safety statewide. With the grant money, communities are allowed to conduct targeted enforcement, use decoys, purchase reflective tape and signs and have educational materials printed as handouts.
Methuen police used a portion of the grant to have handout cards explaining the crosswalk law. On the flip side, the card explains “Motorist Responsibilities to Bicyclists.”
Police Chief Joseph Solomon said the department wanted to highlight pedestrian safety and ultimately the issue of distracted driving and its dangers. He pointed last weekend’s horrific crash in Hampton, N.H. where two bicyclists were killed and several others injured when they were struck by a driver who may have been under the influence of a prescription painkiller. The woman was stopped 8 hours earlier for driving without a license.
That accident “highlights the inattentive driving that we are seeing across the country. It is our goal to remind drivers of their responsibilities when they’re behind the wheel of a motor vehicle,” Solomon said.
He said a combination of education, community outreach and stepped up enforcement “will keep these responsibilities in the forefront.”
Some drivers pulled over for crosswalk violations have also been arrested for having outstanding warrants, suspended licenses and unregistered cars, police said. Friday night on East Street, one car police pulled over for crosswalk violations contained four people — none of whom had a valid license. The car was towed and four people sent walking.
While they were not a recipient in the recent grant pool, Lawrence police regularly conduct crosswalk enforcement in heavily traveled pedestrian areas — including Broadway, Common Street and Essex Street. Also on Friday afternoon, two officers conducted crosswalk enforcement on Essex Street near Appleton Way. They were not using a decoy officer but watching everyday people as they tried to cross the street in the crosswalk. They issued 10 citations in less than two hours, Police Chief James Fitzpatrick said.
A year ago, that crosswalk was the backdrop for a pedestrian accident that left a Lawrence Public School administrator with serious head injuries. The crosswalk is located in front of the public school’s administrative offices.
Marilse Rodriguez-Garcia, 60, of Cambridge was airlifted to Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston after the 6 p.m. accident on Sept. 21, 2012. She has not returned to work since the accident.
After the accident, Ronald Desrocher, 24, of 308 Hilldale Ave., Haverhill was charged with numerous offenses including driving under the influence of drugs, illegal possession of marijuana, failure to stop in a crosswalk, leaving the scene of an accident and impeding a police investigation.
Rodriguez-Garcia had just returned from a meeting at Lawrence High School and was headed back to work that night. She was hit after parking her car, police said.
Desrocher, who was driving a 2001 Volkswagon Jetta west on Essex Street, said he was unable to see well due to the glare on his windshield. But investigating Officer Miguel Romero said Desrocher’s pupils “were in pin point” and he was dozing off as police interviewed him.
Desrocher is due back in Lawrence District Court on Friday in the pending case.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screenname EagleTribJill.
Crosswalk law Crosswalk safety tips When you're a pedestrian: Walk on a sidewalk or path when they are available. Be alert; don't be distracted by electronic devices, radios, smart phones etc. Be cautious day and night. Never assume a driver sees you. Cross the street at crosswalks and intersections whenever possible. If there is no crosswalk, find a well lit area, wait for a gap in traffic that allows you to cross safely and always watch traffic as you cross. Don't walk on freeways, highways or any pedestrian-prohibited areas. Wear bright clothing during the day and reflective materials at night. And use a flashlight when it's dark. Avoid alcohol and drugs when walking. They impair your abilities. When you're a driver: Look out for pedestrians everywhere at all times. Be especially vigilant for pedestrians at night or in bad weather. Slow down and be prepared to stop when turning or entering a crosswalk. Always stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. Never pass vehicles stopped at a crosswalk. Follow the speed limit. Follow slower speed limits in school zones and in neighborhoods where children are present. (Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)