Accidents abound on campus

By Nate Sandstrom

Before crossing the street in the University’s central campus area, students should know there is a good chance that a pedestrian or bicyclist has been struck by a motor vehicle at that intersection in the past five years.

An examination of police records from the University, Champaign and Urbana revealed that 193 pedestrians and bicyclists were struck by motor vehicles between 2000 and 2004 on the University’s main campus and the surrounding half-mile – an average of more than three per month.

In 2004 alone, 40 pedestrians were hit by vehicles in the campus area. Three students were hit by an MTD bus this school year, one of whom died.

The University’s pedestrian and bicyclist accident rate is higher than at some other university campuses of similar sizes or within the state of Illinois. In response to accidents during recent years, officials from the University, Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District and the cities of Champaign and Urbana attempted to add more safety features on the streets, but the cost of projects have not allowed them to build these features as quickly as they have identified problems.

And although the recent bus accidents have received much of the attention, car accidents occurred more often. One recent accident near the corner of First and Green streets left a student in critical condition for more than a week.

Intersections along Green Street, Springfield Avenue and Lincoln Avenue were the most common accident sites between 2000 and 2004. During that period, according to police reports:

n Three pedestrians and three bicyclists were struck by vehicles at the intersection of Illinois Street and Lincoln Avenue. In February 2002, a bicyclist was struck by a car turning left from Illinois Street onto Lincoln Avenue. Two months later, a pedestrian was hospitalized after a vehicle struck the pedestrian in nearly the same spot.

n Three bicyclists and two pedestrians were struck at the intersection of Lincoln and Springfield avenues. The vehicles’ directions varied and included a hit-and-run.

n Four bicyclists and two pedestrians were struck when they attempted to cross Goodwin Avenue as they traveled along Springfield Avenue. All of the vehicles involved in the accidents were turning.

n Five accidents were reported near the intersection of Fifth and Green streets. A pedestrian was hospitalized in each incident.

While these were the intersections with the most accidents, other intersections had multiple crashes as well. The student who was killed after being hit by a bus in October 2004 was the third pedestrian struck at the intersection of Goodwin Avenue and Gregory Drive in the past five years. In separate incidents in 2001, two pedestrians were rushed to the hospital after cars struck them as they were crossing the same location.

Also, two pedestrians who were crossing Sixth Street were struck by cars turning left from Chalmers Street on different occasions this school year. One driver stated that she had been watching for one-way traffic coming from her right and did not look to her left before turning. Today, the painted crosswalk lines in the intersection are worn to the point where they are barely visible.

Tom Conrad, an MTD bus driver who has driven the Illini 22 route since 1989, said he thought Sixth Street and Chalmers Street was among the most dangerous intersections on his route because of the heavy pedestrian traffic and a lack of additional traffic signs or lights. Currently, there are only stop signs on Chalmers Street.

The number of accidents in the approximate half-mile surrounding the University’s campus was higher than some other campuses. The area surrounding Penn State University in State College, Pa., had 105 accidents between motor vehicles and pedestrians or bicyclists from 2002 to 2004, according to statistics from the State College and Penn State University police departments. During the same time, the area surrounding the University of Illinois had 129. Both schools had annual enrollments around 40,000 in the past three years.

The University also did not fare well compared to Illinois State University in Normal, Ill. Enrollment at ISU was about half of the University’s from 2003 to 2004, but only about one-third as many accidents occured there. According to statistics from the Normal, Ill., and ISU police, there were 34 accidents involving bicyclists and pedestrians in the half-mile surrounding their campus during that time, compared to 91 in the University of Illinois area.

Officials from the University, MTD, Champaign and Urbana have made efforts to improve traffic safety around campus. In 1999, the first results of the Campus Area Transportation Study were published. The study led to changes on campus, such as changing traffic patterns on Wright Street, decreasing speed limits, narrowing sections of Green Street and adding street signs warning drivers when they approach a crosswalk.

However, the number of accidents in the area has risen from 30 in 2000 to 51 in 2003 before dropping back to 40 in 2004.

Champaign Planning Director Bruce Knight said that numbers couldn’t tell the whole story.

“If you look at the numbers, yes they’re up, but you have to look at what happened in each case,” Knight said.

Knight added that it was possible that more accidents could have occurred had the recent improvements not been added.

Knight said that the cost of projects suggested by the transportation study could be an impediment to these changes. In addition, he estimated that installing traffic signals at an intersection could cost anywhere from $300,000 to $1 million, depending on what type of alterations would be required to the areas where stoplights would be placed.

Despite the costs, implementing the study’s findings remains an ongoing process, Knight said.

“A lot of implementation still needs to be done,” Knight said.

As an example of ongoing improvements, the City of Champaign announced last week that they would be narrowing Green Street between Fourth and Neil streets to a pattern with one lane going each direction and a center turn lane, like the current pattern in Campustown’s west end.

Knight also said he expects a new report to be released in the next few weeks that assesses progress with campus traffic safety thus far and makes new recommendations.

Engineering professor Rahim Benekohal said University administrators recently asked him to complete a new campus safety study. He said he would begin gathering data this summer, including conducting a student survey to determine if drivers and pedestrians understood the new crosswalk signs being added around campus.

Benekohal also said he would meet with officials from other campuses to discuss how they addressed safety issues. He visited with Michigan State University officials last week to discuss traffic safety.

Benekohal said more data was needed before determining the next course of action.

“Campus safety is a complex issue,” he said. “We first need to know the size and dimension of the problem.”