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Published: Sunday, 5/6/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Deadly Distractions

Walkers, drivers need to pay attention to each other

BY ROSE RUSSELL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

It's a good thing that Toledo police Sgt. Joe Heffernan wasn't distracted when he was driving recently. If he hadn't been paying attention, he might have hit the pedestrian who stepped off the curb and into the path of his car.

"He looked to the right and never looked left," the police department's public information officer said. "As I short stopped and almost hit him, he never turned around. It happens to everyone."

For decades, public safety officials and armchair experts have debated the dangers of distracted driving. Though the risks of using cell phones to talk or text while driving are widely known, there is growing concern about another danger on roadways: the number of pedestrians who are struck and killed or injured as a result of their own or motorists' inattention.

Researchers at the University of Maryland call it "inattentional blindness." The description refers to pedestrians who pay more attention to the music streaming into their ears via ear buds than they do traffic on the streets that they travel. And that doesn't begin to take into account the worrisome and dangerous trend of pedestrians and motorists who text or who are so engaged in cell phone conversations that they put themselves and others at risk in motor vehicle traffic.

According to Sergeant Heffernan, in 2010 in Toledo, six pedestrians were killed and 113 were injured; in 2011, one pedestrian was killed and 129 injured, and by March 31 of this year, one pedestrian was killed and 30 were injured.

Nationally, fewer pedestrians were killed or injured in traffic in recent decades. Figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that in 2009, more than 4,000 pedestrians were killed and 59,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes. In 1999, there were 4,900 fatalities and 85,000 injuries. In 1990, there were about 6,500 fatalities and more than 100,000 injuries. A Web site, walkinginfo.org, said the decline could be the result of people not walking as often.

These accidents seem to display the lack of common sense. No wonder Sergeant Heffernan said the fundamentals of driving and walking require "good common sense." After all, when pedestrians are hurt, he said, "It's not always the motorist's fault. Most of the time, these accidents are not fatal, but they can be serious."

He reiterated the importance of driving defensively, and said, "You have to limit your distractions. You don't want to be the person who strikes a kid who runs into the street. It might not be your fault, but you will feel terrible. Always anticipate that a person might not see you. Someone may look toward you and you think they see you," but they don't.

He urges motorists to allow enough time to react safely in the event a pedestrian does not see a vehicle and puts himself at risk.

Toledo addresses the issue in two ways. In its Saf-T-City program, children entering kindergarten visit the miniature layout of a city with replicas of buildings and traffic lights and signs. It is there, on Nebraska Avenue near the Scott Park police station, that little children learn to negotiate streets and sidewalks.

"Children in that program learn from an early age the importance of [safety]," Sergeant Heffernan said.

Police officers also try to educate the public about and enforce safe pedestrian crossing on roads around schools, where there is plenty of foot traffic.

"And sometimes people are not paying attention and sometimes officers will issue citations for crossing outside a crosswalk," he said about jaywalking, the illegal practice of crossing a street where it is not permitted.

Though Toledo police don't typically hand out citations to jaywalkers, the police sergeant said, "We do it at locations where we have problems, and schools are locations where we tend to have problems."

Traffic safety administration statistics from a 2008 report show that a pedestrian is killed in a traffic accident every two hours; one is injured in a crash every eight minutes.

The report also found that 72 percent of pedestrian fatalities were in urban areas; 76 percent occurred at nonintersections; 89 percent of the deaths took place in normal weather conditions, and 70 percent of the fatalities were at night.

Contact Rose Russell at: rrussell@theblade.com or 419-724-6178.



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