By James Kiefer
*Ellie Heffernan has previously written for The Local Reporter.
The emotional core of Wednesday evening’s Town Council session saw elected officials dissect issues regarding multiple pedestrian and bicyclist safety incidents. Discussion of the issue included many statements from community members detailing current concerns and other shortfalls facing pedestrians and bicyclists.
Town transportation planning manager Bergen Watterson shared a slide stating that of the 46 crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists in 2021, one resulted in a fatality and seven ended in serious injury. In 2022, cyclist Nicholas Watson was critically injured when he struck the door of a parked car along West Franklin Street. The incident occurred Jan. 25 as Watson was riding an electric bike and the driver opened his door; Watson died Feb. 4.
Chapel Hill police stated last week the driver will not face charges, according to the News & Observer.
“While the numbers have stayed relatively the same, there is a pretty significant increase in serious injuries from 2020 to 2021,” she said, adding that there have been 16 people hit while using a crosswalk in the last year.
Watterson went on to say that while nonwhite persons make up only about 20% of the Town’s population, they make up 41% of pedestrian and bike crash victims.
Police Chief and Community Safety Director Chris Blue added that enforcement efforts on the roadways are only part of a holistic response, along with meaningful environmental and engineering changes.
“We have, however, grown increasingly concerned that while we work on those longer-term solutions, we continue to see disturbing driving behaviors in our community, with sometimes deadly consequences,” he said
Blue said the agency is ramping up enforcement of crosswalk violations, conducting 22 efforts since Feb. 4. Police have issued three citations: one for failure to yield to pedestrians, one for speeding and another for reckless driving.
Watterson added that rectangular rapid flashing beacons (RRFBs) have been added to the crosswalk of Caswell and Estes, where two pedestrians were hit by a vehicle on New Year’s Eve. Other efforts include similar devices slated to be installed at more crosswalks, and adding speed display signs near school zones and checking the overall condition of crosswalk visibility.
Next steps for the Town include coordinating with the North Carolina Department of Transportation on a speed safety study, working with the Highway Safety Research Center on additional safety studies and continuing small-scale pedestrian improvements. The council previously approved Vision Zero, an equity-focused transportation planning initiative that aims to eliminate traffic fatalities and severe injuries.
Staff also noted that Chapel Hill does not have a law penalizing dooring — an incident in which a cyclist or motorcyclist collides with the open door of a parked car. The News & Observer reported that North Carolina is one of eight states without a statewide ordinance addressing such an incident. It further reported that some cities have their own laws on the issue; motorists in Raleigh can be charged with a misdemeanor or even face jail time.
“I do want to share with the public that we take the issue very seriously,” Mayor Pam Hemminger stated. “We’ve all been stunned and saddened by the especially recent events that have happened and we’ve responded pretty quickly.”
She went on to say that community safety is a shared responsibility, which means both motorists and pedestrians need to pay attention to their surroundings. That means drivers not being distracted and people utilizing crosswalks being observant. Getting feedback from the public on where they feel unsafe is also important, Hemminger added.
Councilperson Michael Parker asked whether any predominant factors contribute to causing crashes and what can be done to address those causes. Watterson stated the top three contributing circumstances are failure to reduce speed, inattentive driving, and backing into an object.
She added there are Town initiatives in place to help mitigate those factors.
During the public comment period, the council heard from UNC student Ellie Heffernan, who described how she ended up in the emergency room after riding an electric scooter on Hillsborough Street. She said she was forced onto the sidewalk after an inattentive driver pulled out in front of her and that she hit the ground with such intensity her helmet split in two.
“I feel like drivers don’t know to look for pedestrians,” she said, adding that the driver sped off after the incident.”
“I just think that we need a lot more… different changes in traffic measurements. The crosswalk enforcement is great, but we need some more protected bike lanes that people could use because right now there’s no safely-protected route for me to get to my house, which is off Hillsborough Street, to Franklin [Street].
Heffernan remarked that she finds that concerning because a lot of students live in that area and commonly use electric vehicles due to their convenience.
Many other residents mentioned that they don’t feel safe as cyclists on roads within Chapel Hill. Martin Johnson added that the Town offers more incentives for residents to buy an electric car than an electric bike. Alyson West encouraged the council to invest in ways to reduce the need for vehicle-based transit, since it would help reduce traffic and improve road safety.
Council member Tai Huynh said that he has an electric bike and has almost been hit on occasion. Fellow councilperson Camille Berry added that whatever course of action the town pursues likely won’t take effect immediately and motorists in the community will need time to adapt.
“If we say this is important, then we need to show it with our dollars,” she said.
Other business handled during the meeting included:
- A discussion regarding excess funds from the Fiscal Year 2021 fund balance;
- A concept plan review for a development on Homestead Road.