Dexter’s Growing Concern for Pedestrian Safety: Part 1 – Adults v. Kids

A post on the Facebook page, Friends of Dexter, got my attention.

The person posting described seeing a kid, presumably on their way to school, making crossing Baker Rd. near the roundabouts. It was morning rush, the student was wearing a dark jacket, and made it across without incident. The post was made as a reminder for drivers to vigilant in the dark mornings as kids were on their way to school.

This wasn’t the first such comment I’ve heard lately. Pedestrian safety is a growing concern particularly with kids going to and from school. Wanting to learn more for an article, I posted a query on Friends of Dexter (FOD) asking folks to share their concerns with pedestrian safety.

There was more than enough for several articles and I want to thank everyone who responded. Even if your thoughts are not included in this article, they were read by many people. I’ll share a few of the comments throughout this article.

Sarah Hunt: “I stopped for a child crossing by the cemetery, over to the middle onto the entrance near Creekside. This was after school though, but still scary. No sidewalks, no real cross over and cars don’t stop. I pulled into the roundabout and stopped and waved him over then moved forward to stop and allow him to cross again.”

Mike Howard: “I think the street lighting in the whole town is inadequate. It’s too dark at pedestrian crossings especially on rainy nights. Don’t know how to slow traffic before the cars get into the roundabout without using speed strips (not speed bumps).”

Two Issues Regarding Dexter Pedestrians

Judging by the comments on FOD, there are two separate pedestrian concerns in Dexter:

  1. Overall pedestrian safety in the City of Dexter.
  2. Safety of children walking/biking around the city, especially going to and from school.

At first glance, these two concerns appear one and the same but, they are not. Pedestrians in general include adults who have the maturity, experience, and understanding of the how traffic and drivers work. Adults understand the Laws of Physics and stopping distance cars require. As drivers themselves, they understand slippery roads, sun in your eyes, and other safety factors, not to mention the growing concern of distracted driving. Adults know how to cross roads defensively.

On the other hand, we’re not always sure where kids stand in regards to safety. Are they paying attention? They’re kids after all and still learning. Certainly they know to stay out of the road when there is traffic, but kids get distracted too. They get excited and forget stuff, like safety rules. Traffic can be confusing and stressful to a child. Some drivers stop for you to cross. Some don’t. How is a kid to know?

If a driver in one lane stops for you to cross, will the child automatically assume the other lane will stop? Do they understand the effects snow and ice have on driving? Do they understand how hard it is for drivers to see some mornings leaving town on Main Street when the morning sun hits their eyes at the crest of the hill at Kensington Street, a major crossing spot for kids?

As the Dexter area continues to develop, traffic will increase most notably during the daily commutes, which are also the times kids are going to and from school.

The City Continues to Improve Overall Pedestrian Safety

Robyn Judge: “I sent an email to the city earlier this week and received a quick response from the mayor, Shawn Keough. He was interested in hearing more about my concerns and observations which I gladly shared. My interpretation of his email was that he … felt that the city has been working at improvements over the years. He asked for my suggestions which I shared as well. Maybe more of us should reach out to Shawn?”

Without a doubt, the City of Dexter has improved overall pedestrian safety and has it in their master plan to continue doing so for the years to come.

“Pedestrian safety is not something new to the City,” Mayor Shawn Keough told me in a phone conversation. “It is something Dexter has been working on for the past 15 years, before we were a City, before I became Mayor, and will continue to develop in the foreseeable future.”

Mayor Keough addressed recent pedestrian safety concerns in his December 19 report to City Council;

Dexter’s downtown as it looked until the 1990s and as it looks today.

“Pedestrian safety is something that the City of Dexter has taken very seriously for a long time.   The City takes pride in being a walkable, accessible community and we have worked hard over the past 20 years to make the town safe and pedestrian friendly for all users.  The downtown streetscape was the first example of a project aimed at improving pedestrian safety.  Over the years since the streetscape, we have expanded our focus to enhance the crosswalks by making them more visible, creating shorter crossing distances, adding advanced signage at designated school crossings, and adding lighting.  We have also made the crosswalks ADA compliant.  We continue to look for ways to enhance pedestrian safety in the community.   Most recently in 2014, we worked cooperatively with the schools to add the crosswalk island on Baker to minimize the number of lanes pedestrians have to cross. We have also added sidewalk to our ‘grid’ to enhance connectivity.”

Mayor Keough readily recognizes the increased traffic through Dexter and the critical need for pedestrian safety. But no matter what improvements are made, there is no way to completely eliminate pedestrian interaction with traffic. While the City continues to build sidewalks and improve intersection crossings around town, Mayor Keough also believes awareness on the part of pedestrians to crosswalk laws can go a long way to improving safety.

Recently, the City met with Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton and his department to discuss crosswalk safety. The Sheriff’s Department stressed, that when it comes to crosswalks, it’s important that pedestrians understand “who has the right of way”.

In his report to City Council, Mayor Keough summarized the Sheriff’s Office clarification:

  1. Unlike crosswalks at intersections, the State of Michigan has no law related to mid-block crosswalks, whether they have a flashing light or not. What this means is midblock crosswalks do not provide any additional protection from a legal standpoint.
  2. Pedestrians cannot enter the roadway into the path of a vehicle. If they do, they are not automatically protected by state law.   Conversely, if a pedestrian is crossing the road, a driver is required not to hit them.  These two points are important to understand because they are based upon the notion of who (vehicle or pedestrian) was in the cross walk first.  These two points establish “who has the right of way”.
  3. While a yellow light at a signalized intersection means caution, a yellow light (flashing or steady) at a mid-block crosswalk is just a light. In the case of a crosswalk that has a Rapid Repeating Flashing Beacon (RRFB), what this means is that a motor vehicle is not required to stop.

It is important to remember that regardless of who is legally “in the right”, when vehicle meets pedestrian, the vehicle wins every time.

The City stresses the onus for safety primarily falls on pedestrians. Driver behavior is unpredictable and walkers should be on the defense. The overwhelming majority of drivers are very aware, respectful, and helpful to pedestrians, but there is always that exception.

Simply put, there is nothing that will ensure a driver will stop when they see a pedestrian.

Culture is a Factor in Safety

Pete Bigelow: “Dexter is decidedly an unfriendly place for pedestrians. From the way cars ignore pedestrians waiting to cross from the Dairy Queen to the park to the way we allow tractor trailers to make those turns onto Broad downtown to the current safety concerns about the crossing between Bates and Creekside on Baker, there’s too many places that are inherently dangerous.”

Carl Arft: “I can tell you that for some reason where we lived in Silicon Valley, cars come screeching to a halt when a pedestrian is in a crosswalk. And trust me, we had way more traffic congestion than in Dexter! It shocked us after moving here to see how the majority of people ignore pedestrians in crosswalks and just fly right past. In California you could just boldly start crossing at a crosswalk and knew that cars would stop for you. Here, it seems you need to assume that cars WON’T stop and you are surprised when they do.”

In our phone conversation, Sharon Raschke made the same observation, also about California. “There doesn’t even have to be a crosswalk,” she told me. “You can walk up to the shoulder of the Pacific Coast Highway and cars in both directions will automatically stop to let you cross.”

A big part of the problem is culture. Collective mindsets sometimes take years and years to develop. Ann Arbor, for example, has been clotted with traffic and pedestrians for decades. Driving downtown, around campus especially, you expect people to walk out in front of traffic. However aggravating it may be for drivers, they are on the lookout and stop. It’s just how you do things when there.

Here in Dexter, when the crosswalk stop signs have been out at Dairy Queen and Riverview Cafe, it is aggravating but not surprising to see cars pass through them with pedestrians entering the walk.

Drivers know to stop for pedestrians. When there are crowds in Dexter for the Memorial Day Parade, Dexter Daze, and the Holiday Hustle, you can see pedestrians crossing streets between corners and crosswalks and traffic stops for them. Drivers expect there to be pedestrians and know it’s a part of driving around Dexter. It becomes the culture for a single event.

Mayor Keough believes ongoing education and increased awareness are the key component to changing the old mindset of traffic/pedestrian interaction and improving overall pedestrian safety in Dexter.

But until this collective mindset develops, what if anything, should be done to improve pedestrian safety for the less experienced, the children?

The Growing Concern of Child Safety

Sally Jacob Messner: “I walk my two young children to school often, sometimes we’re all on foot and sometimes they’re on scooters. This time of year, we all wear lights, and we cross Dan Hoey in the crosswalk near the Dapco building. Some cars don’t stop while we’re waiting to cross; sometimes a car going one direction will stop yet it takes a few more cars going by before traffic going the opposite direction stops…One morning about a month ago, a car passed through behind us but should have waited longer for us to cross—it couldn’t have been more than 4 feet from us, and had hardly slowed. I was grateful for the police officer that pulled out from a side street and pulled that car over.”

More recently in an email to Dexter Community Schools (DCS) and the City dated Jan. 8, a concerned person who works in Bishop Circle but is not a Dexter resident stated,

Dan Hoey Crosswalk from Mill Creek to Dexter Crossings neighborhood

“Twice in the last month, as I have been leaving work to go home at 5 p.m. I have witnessed a lone student crossing the street here, in the semi-dark…In both instances, the most recent one was 1/7/19, the student had to stop abruptly, standing in the turning lane, halfway through crossing the street, because the traffic did not yield to her.  This is a very dangerous situation, particularly at this time of year with it still getting dark relatively early, and with no lights or markings to indicate this cross walk.  I hope this situation can be addressed quickly before a student gets hurt.”

The City was quick to respond and explain the lack of markings was the result of DCS recent repaving as part of the new elementary construction. Their contractor has been notified as to the urgency in completing the markings.

As Dexter continues to grow and develop, and as kids are encouraged to be more active, children crossing roads is a big concern of Dexter Community Schools (DCS). In an email about this very subject, Board of Education President Michael Wendorf states,

“Our community overwhelmingly approved the 2017 bond for construction of a new elementary school and other enhancements … Among the other enhancements were changes in traffic flows with the addition of roundabouts and their resulting reductions in pedestrian crossing gaps.  The district also committed, as part of the bond and our desire to encourage the ability of our students to safely walk or ride their bicycles to and from school, to both study and consider best practices regarding pedestrian safety.  We commissioned Midwestern Consulting and their traffic engineers to study this issue and make recommendations to the district.”

While working on this article, I was driving down Dan Hoey from Ann Arbor St. after school when a kid bolted, and I mean BOLTED!, across the road with backpack pounding hard in rhythm to the steps. It was at the back drive to Mill Creek. There are crosswalk signs, but no pavement markings. The road was busy but there was plenty of space in traffic for the kid to get across. I didn’t have to slow down, but these thoughts struck me:

  • The kid had to RUN across a busy road.
  • There were crosswalk signs where he/she crossed, but nothing on the pavement to mark it. The kid was crossing in the right place, obeying the rules, but still had a strong sense of endangerment.
  • How many times has this kid had to do this day after day?
  • This is one kid. How many times is this played out every day by other kids on Dan Hoey, Ann Arbor Rd., and Baker Rd.?
  • Someday a backpack-laden kid is going to trip.
  • Someday a driver will be looking at their phone at just the wrong time.

Part 2 of this article will be published tomorrow and will look more closely at the School’s request for Rapid Repeating Flashing Beacons at several crosswalks around town.

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