Suburban streets, pedestrians often deadly mix

Rodney Johnson would rather wait or walk than try to cross Buford Highway on his own.

The Doraville man is willing to go out of his way to find a crosswalk before he'll try to make it across the seven-lane suburban speedway. If that means he misses the bus that he can see coming, there will always be another one.

“If you don’t use a crosswalk, you’ll get picked off eventually,” said Johnson, an out-of-work roofer who was rolling a luggage bag on his morning walk to the bus stop. “It’s like they don’t see you or want to.”

The drivers Johnson is referring to and the pedestrians more willing to take their chances darting into traffic often make a deadly mix in suburban Atlanta.

Just last week, Gregory Armwood of Covington received a month's jail sentence for passing a stopped MARTA bus on a double-yellow line in Clarkston, hitting and killing a 6-year-old refugee who had been in the country less than two weeks.

In sentencing Armwood, DeKalb State Court Judge Alvin Wong pointed out that bad driving was all too common across the region.

“All we have to do is obey the traffic law,” Wong said.

That is easier said than done -- especially, it seems, at bus stops.

A study earlier this year by the Atlanta Regional Commission showed that 48 percent of pedestrian crashes happened within 300 feet of a bus stop. One in five happens within 100 feet.

“These are people trying to cross to or from a bus stop,” said Sally Flocks, president of the pedestrian advocacy group PEDS. “A big part of the problem is that suburban roads are not designed for walking safety. They’re designed for speed, for drivers.”

New designs can help make roads safer for everyone. Cobb County’s transportation department installed fences behind Cumberland Mall and in front of its transfer station, forcing bus riders to use the marked spots to cross.

The county also recently launched a local campaign, putting up posters at bus stops reminding pedestrians to use the crosswalks.

“I have seen, so many times, people get within six feet of a crosswalk and then not use it,” said Rebecca Gutowsky, the county’s transit division manager. “Pedestrians need to be more careful.”

The same could be said for people who try to cross Buford Highway in either DeKalb or Gwinnett counties. The wide road is the deadliest in the state, notching 17 pedestrian deaths three years ago.

By comparison, all of DeKalb County had 18 pedestrian deaths in 2007, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Doraville Police Chief John King thinks it is no coincidence that Buford Highway doesn’t have a single crosswalk from I-285 to Gwinnett.

“Because it says ‘highway,’ people think they can go 55-plus,” King said of speeders on the road, which has posted 40 mph and 45 mph limits. “So you go 55 and crest a hill and boom, there are a bunch of people trying to get across the street.”

Many jurisdictions are trying a mix of carrot and stick approaches to make roads safer.

Gwinnett County, for instance, has committed more than $105 million from its local penny sales tax to pedestrian improvements, such as new sidewalks, improved crosswalk signals and public education.

That effort could be a factor in the big drop in Gwinnett’s pedestrian fatalities, from 12 in 2006 to 6 in 2008, the last year from which figures are available.

Other communities try to make the roads safer by cracking down on reckless drivers and even the occasional jaywalker.

“My only option is to go out and write a bunch of tickets to get people to behave,” said Sgt. Dan Nable, who heads the Sandy Springs police traffic unit.

Reckless driving is only a felony when a motorist is driving drunk, eluding police or committing another major crime. Drivers like Armwood, who kill during a traffic violation, face only misdemeanor charges and up to a year in jail.

Even drivers who violate the new state law prohibiting texting while driving face a misdemeanor count if their drive turns deadly. Discussion of making such distracted driving a felony never got out of committee, said state Rep. Allen Peake, who championed the law.

“We knew it wouldn’t stop everybody from texting and driving,” said Peake, a Macon Republican. “We’re trying to change the behavior.”

Law enforcement officials and Flocks of PEDS believe the easiest solution would be more refuge islands. The concrete islands, built in the middle of the road, give pedestrians a safe place to wait for a gap in traffic.

Suwanee and Doraville also have HAWK beacons to help pedestrians. Formally known as high-intensity activated crosswalk beacons, they allow walkers to push a button and activate blinking lights over a crosswalk.

But even new designs and gadgets won't be enough to make M.D. Alam feel safe. The Atlanta man is used to walking in his neighborhood, but when he had to drop off his car at a body shop on Buford Highway, he didn't want to be a pedestrian there.

Waiting for a friend to pick him up, he watched as people darted into the busy road and shook his head. Alam, it turns out, is a driving instructor.

"I tell them all the time to be aware, to be careful," Alam said. "Always, always, I cross only at the crosswalk. It's dangerous out there."

Staff writer Ralph Ellis contributed to this article.