MTD urges pedestrians: use caution

By Nate Sandstrom

A week after the third student this school year was hit by a bus on campus, officials from the Mass Transit District (MTD), the University and local police departments have proposed raising awareness among campus pedestrians as a way to prevent future accidents.

Benjamin Robin, junior in communications, was struck by an MTD bus on Feb. 28 as he crossed Wright Street by Lincoln Hall. Carolyn Jeffers, a biochemistry graduate student, was killed by a bus at the corner of Gregory Drive and Goodwin Avenue. A third student was injured Dec. 14 when he was hit by a bus on Gregory Drive near the Graduate Library.

Tom Costello, assistant director for MTD, said the number of accidents involving pedestrians and buses this year has been unusually high. Costello is also on the Illini Media Board of Directors.

A search of University police accident records found no record of an accident involving a bus and a pedestrian in the previous five years. Officials at the Urbana and Champaign police departments, which have jurisdiction on some streets surrounding the University, said they could not compile records of accidents involving campus pedestrians in time for this article.

Four pedestrians and a bicyclist have also been injured this school year after being struck by a car, according to University police reports – numbers similar to statistics in recent years.

Champaign-Urbana was rated the second-safest metropolitan area for pedestrians, according to a study released last December by the Surface Transportation Policy Project. However, the area also saw the second-biggest increase in the state of its Pedestrian Danger Index since 1995, a figure that compares the number of people walking to work with pedestrian death rates.

University officials said they plan to teach students about the dangers of walking across busy campus streets.

Rhonda Kirts, who works on the curriculum for new student orientation at the University, said the University will include pedestrian education as part of its orientation program for students entering in the Fall 2005 semester. She said what will be included in the pedestrian safety information will not be decided for a few more weeks, but her office was looking at how other Big Ten campuses deal with the issue.

Other Big Ten schools address pedestrian safety in different ways. The University of Wisconsin, for example, has elevated walkways and restricts traffic on certain streets to reduce interaction with vehicles.

Kirts said the University had planned to educate people about pedestrian safety before the recent accidents.

Since 1998, the University, MTD, Illinois Department of Transportation and the cities of Urbana and Champaign have collaborated to work on the Campus Area Transportation Study. The study’s initial findings proposed strategies to make the campus area safer for pedestrians. Among the changes made were making parts of Wright Street for buses only, narrowing Green Street and adding more crosswalks with signs.

Lt. Holly Nearing, Champaign Police Department South District Commander, said the changes made during the first phase of the CATS study helped, but she added, “We’re not going to ever eliminate the problem unless we either eliminate cars or eliminate pedestrians.”

She said the police were working with others on CATS to try to increase awareness among pedestrians, bicyclist and drivers.

Nearing also said officers had the option to ticket jaywalkers. Robin, who was observed wearing headphones by the bus driver as he walked in front of the bus last week, was given a citation for failure to use an available crosswalk, according to a police report. Robin did not return messages left on his voicemail.

Costello said the MTD has placed advertisements on WPGU-FM radio, encouraging students to pay attention when crossing the streets. Costello said that bus drivers are on edge since the accidents have occurred.

“We don’t want any accidents; that’s not good for anybody,” he said.

Drivers are trained for six weeks before they begin driving routes, but “the amount of training makes no difference if someone’s going to take it upon themselves to walk in front of a vehicle,” Costello said.

Tom Conrad, an MTD driver who has driven the Illini 22 route since 1989, said, “I just slow down and give the students (the) right of way.”

Conrad said MTD drivers were concerned by the accidents. He said most drivers who have campus routes request them because they enjoy students.

Conrad said familiarity with the routes helped to minimize the potential for accidents.

“We do the same routes everyday. We know the intersections we have to watch,” he said. Conrad said Chalmers and Sixth Street is an intersection that can be dangerous.

Despite his caution, Conrad said he averages about one close call a week. However, he said he couldn’t explain the recent rises in bus accidents involving pedestrians.

“I’ve been here since ’89 and never heard of all these accidents. It’s really freaky. What’s the problem? Is it cell phones? Is it traffic?” Conrad said.

Logan Meece, sophomore in LAS, characterized pedestrians at the University as “aggressive walkers.” He said he often saw people walk into the street without looking when he has driven in the campus area. He said that on a campus as densely populated as the University’s, conflicts were almost unavoidable and all people can do is be cautious.

Brian Thacker, sophomore in LAS, said he did not think pedestrian safety was a problem on the campus.

“I’ve never really had a close call myself, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed,” he said.