Dexter’s Growing Concern for Pedestrian Safety: Part 2 – Children and Flashing Beacons

This is the second part of a two-part article looking at the rising concern of pedestrian safety in Dexter. In part one, we saw how the City has been working to improve overall pedestrian safety for adults and children. In this article we’ll examine the larger concern of Dexter’s school children as they walk/bike to and from school and specifically at Dexter Community Schools request for the installation of Rapid Repeating Flashing Beacon crosswalks and the City of Dexter’s response.

A Catalyst for the Concern is the Shortage of Bus Drivers

Dexter Community Schools needs bus drivers and has needed them for a while now.

“Just hire more drivers,” people say.

If only it were that easy. A shortage of bus drivers is a national problem with which school districts coast-to-coast are struggling. Dexter Community Schools has made moves to make the position more attractive, but they still find themselves 3 drivers short of a full fleet. That’s with the head of maintenance and head mechanic driving routes.

A tipping point for recent concerns is the school’s announcement that they will be ending bus service to Morningstar Daycare on Ann Arbor St. This move affects 53 families counting on that service. The daycare served as a supervised after school bus drop-off for working parents.

The ongoing shortage of bus drivers forced the school to look for ways to constrict their routes. It was decided to end service to Morningstar. The kids attending Morningstar will now walk from school under adult supervision while crossing the main artery of Ann Arbor St.

There are no plans to cancel any other bus routes and the school continues discussions with Morningstar as to alternative ways of getting the kids safely moved.

Get More Crossing Guards

There were suggestions on the Friends of Dexter post to use more crossing guards. It’s a good suggestion and everyone seems to be in favor of it. But again, if it were only that easy. Crossing guards are more complicated than it would seem, or perhaps should be.

By State Law, crossing guards have to be hired by the City, not the schools. How it has worked in the past, the schools have sent a para-pro out for a half-hour in the morning for students coming to school and again in the afternoon when they leave. The City reimburses the school for the time.

Like the bus driver shortage, there is also a shortage of paraprofessional educators for the same reasons.

Sharon Raschke, Chief Financial Officer for Dexter Community Schools, explains, “Right now we’re only using one crossing guard and that’s at Mill Creek for kids crossing Ann Arbor St. at the light. We began using a crossing guard there as a temporary measure when the traffic light was first installed until drivers got accustomed to having a light there. Now, even though there is a light to stop traffic, we’ve kept the guard in place.”

One observation is that with the implementation of the traffic light, motorists are accustomed to completely stopping at the intersection. It is the safest of crosswalks. The presence of a crossing guard doubles up the safety perhaps unnecessarily. The guard could be used elsewhere at the Dan Hoey crossing or just down the street at the Kensington St. crosswalk.

Even if there was a way to staff more crossing guards, it wouldn’t solve the over-arching concerns of kids crossing busy Dexter Roads.

A crossing guard is there 30 minutes in the morning and in the afternoon,” Raschke explains. “Kids are crossing the streets outside of school hours for a variety of reasons.

RRFB (Rapid Repeating Flashing Beacons)

Laurie Downie Higgins: “Wondering if you’d consider expanding your article on … the city’s push against proper crossings considering the funds have been approved by the school board but city is saying no.”

What Laurie is referring to are the Rapid Repeating Flashing Beacons that have been shown to dramatically increase drivers yielding to pedestrians. The Dexter Community Schools would like to see more of these installed and have even offered to foot the bill.

A Rapid Repeating Flashing Beacon (RRFB) is a pedestrian activated alert which flashes bright yellow lights signaling motorists to yield to a pedestrian about to cross. In response to community concern for pedestrian safety, Ann Arbor installed a number of RRFB’s around the city. The increased safety has been dramatic enough that the City is adding more and more.

“The district has a positive history with RRFBs,” says School Board President Michael Wendorf.  “We installed a RRFB on Shield Road when the bridge over Mill Creek was improved.  That RRFB has worked very well.  It is reliable and minimally disruptive to traffic flow. We also shared our concerns and intent to study pedestrian safety with the City of Dexter.”

Approval for the Shield Rd. RRFB came through the Washtenaw County Road Commission and prior to its implementation, the school would carpool and even bus students participating in events at the stadium in order to avoid having kids cross Shield Rd. “Since its installation, cars have 100% stopped when we’ve monitored it,” says Sharon Raschke. “We’re very confident in the safety there and kids are no longer being driven to Al Ritt Field to avoid that crossing.”

“The School District has been concerned for some time about ways to improve safety for student pedestrians and bicyclists,” says long time School Board member Dick Lundy.  “In the recent past the School District not only received recommendations, but also a third party source of funding, to use RRFB lights at pedestrian crossings.  The District placed such a crossing at Shield Road when the bridge was replaced.  For reasons that escape me the City has adamantly been opposed to RRFD’s when we have discussed them.”

Dexter Community Schools takes the brunt of public concerns over student pedestrian safety and would like the City to install 4 more RRFB signals: Between Bates and Creekside on Baker Rd., from Walkabout Creek across Dan Hoey, from the back entrance of Mill Creek across Dan Hoey, and from Kensington St. across Main St.

“A draft of that (RRFB) study was shared with the City of Dexter and their engineers months ago,” explains Wendorf. “That study recommends the addition of four RRFBs.  The City of Dexter has regrettably largely stopped communicating with the district and our engineers on this issue.  Separately, the City of Dexter has publicly stated that it believes the existing crosswalks and enhancements are compliant with minimum state requirements that pedestrians need to be educated about motor vehicle right of way, that the existing enhancements to pedestrian safety are adequate and that the RRFBs proposed by the district are neither appropriate nor necessary.”

The RRFB study commissioned by DCS will be made public at the Board’s January 14 meeting.

“I am not a traffic engineer,” admits Wendorf. “However, my understanding is the City of Dexter’s view of ‘adequate’ is based on a tortured interpretation of its roads being highway trucklines as that term is used in the vehicle code.”

The City’s interpretation of “trucklines”, as applied to highways in the code, is that Baker Rd. in Dexter is not that much different than M-52 in Chelsea. But this doesn’t explain the RRFB recently installed on Baker Rd. at Grandview Commons.

RRFB Beacon Installed on Baker Rd. at Grandview Commons

“We’re not against RRFB signals,” Mayor Keough said. “Let me be clear on that.”

A second RRFB was recently installed at the new Grandview Commons at a crosswalk leading across Baker Rd. to the gas station. It seemed an odd place for such technology, especially when nobody yet lives in the development and there has been a constant push to place RRFB signals elsewhere in town. I asked Mayor Keough about it.

“There were a couple of determining factors in that installation,” Mayor Keough explained. “Part of the agreement with the developer, A.R. Brouwer in this case, was that in addition to building Grandview Commons, they had to do some things that benefited the community at large. So they went through the proper procedures and City Council approved the crosswalk with the RRFB.”

“The reason the City approved it for this location,” continued Mayor Keough anticipating my next question, “was that it fit the MDOT criteria for these kinds of crosswalks. The locations the schools are requesting haven’t fit the criteria, but the City is reviewing the study which it only just received on Dec. 17.”

Lundy disagrees. He explains, “The District initiated a contract with a Traffic Safety Engineering Firm (Midwest Consulting) who concluded after studying various possibilities that it would be beneficial to student pedestrians and bicyclists to place 4 RRFD’s near our schools.  This study included researching traffic counts and flow, applicable laws and codes, and best practices nationwide.  This study was shared with the City and reviewed by the City’s Engineering firm.  After months of working to address their issues and concerns, it is my understanding that our request for the 4 RRFD-s (on Baker Road, two on Dan Hoey, and Dexter Ann Arbor Road) have successfully addressed every concern that they have brought up.  Yet the City has continued to oppose our requests to improve safe travel for our students.”

The installation of an RRFB at vacant Grandview Commons to Mugg n’ Bopps is curious to some. The City approved it for this location but just a few hundred yards down the same road with 3-lanes and the same speed limit between two heavily populated schools, the request for an RRFB is refused.

“Meanwhile, in very short order, it appears that placing a similar crossing at Grand and Baker has been put in place for Grandview Commons residents and others in that neighborhood,” says Lundy.  “I am disappointed and amazed that the District’s concerns for student safety continue to be opposed, but placing a similar safety system for Grandview Commons has been approved quickly.”

The Schools would like to see an RRFB installed on Main St. at Kensington, a popular spot kids use to cross the road. This is one of four crossing locations the Schools recommend installing RRFB signals.

“We are not against RRFB signals,” Mayor Keough said. “Let me be clear on that. The City is not against pedestrian crossings with flashing yellow lights to stop traffic so they can cross. The City can install RRFB signals anywhere whether the criteria fit or not, but there are important considerations that need to be considered before we do that.”

One of those considerations goes back to the disregard some motorists have for pedestrians. “I want to make sure kids would know that once the RRFB lights are activated, they still have to watch and wait for the cars to stop,” explains Mayor Keough. “I don’t want kids thinking it’s an activate the lights and start walking situation. We have to make sure they are still watching for the cars.”

The confusion over what flashing yellow lights mean are a concern of the City’s. “Drivers are taught that flashing yellow lights mean slow down and proceed with caution, but not necessarily stop,” says Mayor Keough. “But when you’re approaching an RRFB, flashing yellow lights are just a warning for motorists that a pedestrian is present. They don’t require a driver to stop. It can be confusing for drivers.”

What the Law Says

In his report to City Council, Mayor Keough states,

“There is a misconception in our community that a vehicle has to stop at a RRFB just because the lights are flashing.  While a flashing light is intended to provide enhanced driver awareness that a pedestrian may be crossing, the input from our Sheriff’s office indicates that the pedestrian should not assume that the flashing light requires a vehicle to stop.  This point needs some emphasis across our community.  As a parent, I feel it is my responsibility to teach my kids this and I would like to encourage all parents to talk to their kids about crosswalks, and driver and pedestrian responsibility at crosswalks.”

The City of Dexter released this statement via email dated December 14, 2018 regarding the installation of the new RRFB installed on Baker Rd. at Grandview Commons:

“According to State Law, drivers must yield to pedestrians within a crosswalk when the pedestrian is in or near the same half of the street as the driver. Drivers can choose to stop at a crosswalk to allow a pedestrian waiting to cross the street to cross, but it is not required regardless of the presence of the beacon. “If you are a pedestrian, please check for traffic before using any crosswalk. Walk defensively and make eye contact with drivers to ensure that they see you. Never assume that you are seen or that a motorist will yield. Don’t leave the curb or go into the path of a vehicle which is so close that the driver can’t yield.”

Dexter Community Schools have offered to pay for the RRFB signals which cost around $25,000 each. The schools are also paying for an evaluation conducted by the City’s engineers to see if the criteria have changed at these crossings hoping to persuade the City to move ahead with installation.

RRFB Signals Dramatically Improve Pedestrian Safety

No students crossed near the roundabouts the morning I was out there. The Schools would also like an RRFB installed on Baker Rd. between Bates and Creekside for students going to and from school during heavier trafficked communte times.

Knowing the law increases awareness and education, which is good, but it doesn’t stop cars. The data shows that RRFB signals stop cars.

In a May 2009 report, The U.S. Department of Transportation stated,

“… going from a no-beacon arrangement to a two-beacon system, mounted on the supplementary warning sign on the right side of the crossing, increased yielding from 18 percent to 81 percent. There was a further increase in yielding behavior, with a four-beacon system (with two beacons on both the right and left side of the crossing) to 88 percent. “An Analysis of the Effects of Stutter Flash LED Beacons to Increase Yielding to Pedestrians Using Multilane Crosswalks” also evaluated the sites over a 1-year period, and found that there was little to no decrease in yielding behavior over time.”

Discussed at the Dexter Forum

Pedestrian safety for the children is not just a concern of educators and parents on a prompted Facebook forum. The subject was on the Dexter Forum agenda for a second straight meeting. It’s on a lot of folks’ minds these days. And if you’ve ever been to the Forum, a look around the room will tell you it’s been a while since any of us had kids in school.

Moderator John Hansen summarized the discussion in his notes:

“Pedestrian safety was our next topic.  Sometimes issues just pile up on top of one another.  We are grateful for our newly improved roads and better traffic flow.  We are encouraging our kids to walk to school when practical.  The kids need to cross the roads where folks are going faster and faster.  Crossing guards, lights and signage are needed.  Bridges and tunnels were discussed. The responsibility is shared by the schools, the city and the road commission – all of whom were represented in the room today.  We also had concerned parents and pediatricians.  We don’t necessarily try to solve problems at the Forum but we do attempt to develop a better understanding.  We all did agree that the drivers of the cars hold primary responsibility and none of the proposed remedies will work if drivers ignore them.”

In Conclusion

Great improvements have been made and are continuing to be made by the City. I feel much safer crossing Main St. to get to the bakery with my grandkids now than I did with my own kids years ago before the improvements.

In spite of the improvements, there are still 4 critical points of pedestrian activity that the schools believe are inordinately dangerous for children. The schools believe RRFB crosswalks would greatly increase the safety of these crossings.

I struggle to understand why the City of Dexter feels adequate or minimum compliance is good enough when it is clear to everyone, including the City, that more and safer enhancements are available.

“Even assuming that our roads are trucklines or that existing pedestrian crossings meet minimum state requirements,” says Board of Education President Wendorf, “I must admit that I struggle to understand why the City of Dexter feels adequate or minimum compliance is good enough when it is clear to everyone, including the City, that more and safer enhancements are available.  I likewise struggle to understand why anyone would hesitate to further encourage our children to walk and ride their bikes and take every possible action to protect them when they do.

Everybody wants safer crossings for children. The difference in opinion is how to make that happen. While education and awareness is certainly helpful, Board of Education President Wendorf believes it misses the heart of the issue.

“Crossing streets at uncontrolled locations poses significant risks to both pedestrians and drivers of motor vehicles,” he says.  “It is now well established that conflicts and tragedies involving pedestrians and vehicles are less likely when pedestrians cross in a flashing crosswalk than when they cross somewhere else.  Contrary to the position of the City of Dexter, this is not an issue of vehicle right of way.  This is a question of pedestrian safety.  RRFBs in particular have already proven to be successful, reliable and less disruptive to traffic flow in our community than other enhancements.”

After being out where kids cross the busy roads before and after school a mere 3 times, I understand the ongoing concerns that educators and parents have about children at these crosswalks.

Dexter Community Schools and the City are currently in discussion over the results of the study and what it means for pedestrian safety in Dexter. Results will be forthcoming.

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