Back-Seat Driver

Sacramento goal: Pedestrian power

Several years ago, concerned by streams of cars on H Street at McKinley Park that didn’t stop for pedestrians, residents tried a pedestrian-empowerment experiment. With the city’s OK, they put up canisters holding orange flags on sticks for pedestrians to grab and hold up to get drivers’ attention.

It’s uncertain how much impact the flags have had. City traffic officials say most walkers don’t use them. But the flags do, at the very least, make a statement.

More Sacramentans are out walking as part of living healthier lifestyles. Their health, though, depends on being seen and respected by drivers who are often rushed, distracted and still not attuned to looking out for walkers.

With that in mind, Sacramento city officials are writing up a set of guidelines this fall that they and neighborhood residents can use to determine what strategies are most appropriate on different streets around town to make them safer for walking.

City traffic chief Hector Barron said his staff is willing to talk to neighborhood groups that want to try out a flag program, if a street situation warrants it, but Barron points out that the group would need to continually replenish the flags, like the East Sacramento Preservation group does, because they get stolen.

Barron said he is more focused on adding permanent crosswalk improvements.

For high-speed streets, like five-lane Fruitridge Road at 58th Street, where 16-year-old student Michelle Murigi was killed 2012, the answer was obvious. In an emotional ceremony a few months ago, city officials installed a full traffic signal.

But full traffic signals are expensive and often not appropriate.

Sometimes, says Teri Duarte of WALKSacramento, the best thing the city can do is put a traffic island in the middle of the street. That gives pedestrians a refuge and reduces the traffic lane widths, prompting cars to slow down.

On Folsom Boulevard near 32nd Street, the city recently installed a pedestrian crosswalk and an island at a busy spot where there is no traffic signal. But the main attraction is a flashing rectangular beacon that pedestrians can activate before they step into the street. “It has a strobe effect and is pretty effective in grabbing motorists’ attention,” Barron said.

The beacons are less noticeable, though, in midday light. The Bee checked it out this week. The light panels are small, and many cars still do not stop unless the pedestrian makes an assertive move into the crosswalk.

The city has bigger – and brighter – plans for some of its larger, more dangerous streets. It’s called the HAWK, which is an acronym of sorts for “high-intensity activated crosswalk beacon.” It basically turns a crosswalk into a part-time intersection, requiring cars to stop at a red light if pedestrians push the button. If there are no pedestrians, the overhead light panels are blank, and cars drive through without stopping.

The city installed the first HAWK last year on Stockton Boulevard at Sherman Way, near UC Davis Medical Center, where Stockton is a busy, and relatively high-speed, five-lane street. “It’s working fantastically,” Barron said. A Bee review of that intersection corroborated Barron’s conclusion. The HAWK installation is very visible, and all vehicles reacted to it by stopping like they would at a normal red signal light.

HAWKs are expensive, about $150,000 each. City officials recently scored a $1.5 million state grant to install nine more. Four of them are likely to be installed in the next few years on Broadway in Oak Park, at First Avenue, Santa Cruz Way, 39th Street and 43rd Street.

Other probable locations: Marysville Boulevard and Roanoke Avenue, El Camino Avenue and Empress Street, Arden Way and Empress Street, Del Paso Boulevard and Plaza Avenue, and Franklin Boulevard and Atlas Avenue.

City officials and pedestrian safety advocates note that distracted behavior is not merely a problem among drivers. Pedestrians listening to music with ear buds or headphones or texting and talking on cellphones put themselves at risk of being detached from activity around them. A national study by Safe Kids Worldwide reported last year that 20 percent of teens, for instance, are at times distracted walkers.

There are plenty of distracted walkers among adults as well. City traffic chief Barron said he’s noticing more of them.

“I see it, people walking, looking at their phones,” he said. “What I’d like to see is people really paying attention to their environment, making eye contact with drivers, making sure they are on the same page.”