‘Stunned and Saddened’: Town Council Talks Recent Public Safety Incidents


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. 
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2 Comments on "‘Stunned and Saddened’: Town Council Talks Recent Public Safety Incidents"

  1. I am a driver, a pedestrian, and a cyclist. I have stated to the town council numerous times over several years that by making all the crosswalks and flashing lights, they are actually DECREASING pedestrian safety. When I was a youngster, my parents taught me to look both ways twice before crossing a street. Nowadays, there have been numerous occasions where pedestrians have crossed the street without looking in the current belief that the crosswalks will protect them. The best thing that could be done to increase pedestrian safety is to remove all crosswalks except at intersections with traffic lights. The special case is 5 lane roads, like MLK. They should also be removed there because there is a concrete barrier in the middle. I don’t think anyone could fail to cross those roads 2 lanes at a time, using the concrete barrier in the middle to wait after crossing the first two lanes. Forcing pedestrians to look both ways before crossing will be the answer for increasing pedestrian safety.

  2. I want to chime in to support Eric’s statement above. I was a driver until a skylarking octogenarian skylarking on a Sunday as I came to a stop behind a line of cars stopped at a light on Westbound East Franklin Street rear-ending my old Honda accord. Now, I’m just an elder pedestrian and a bus rider, sadly on CHT M-F which I loathe. Weekends, there are no buses in our neighborhoods. I heard an academic before my retirement say that crosswalks had been studied and shown to be unsafe and, hence, it’s better to jaywalk. Still, I try to use crosswalks when they are available.

    A neighbor noted that lights at crosswalks on southbound MLK coming downhill before CHPD into town are confusing in that one always blinks while the other only blinks on demand. I didn’t have time to drive and check that given my misfortune above.

    I too was taught to look both ways before crossing a straightaway and I’ll add that at corners I always look over my left shoulder for cars turning right on red.

    Eric, I will tell you that some years ago I was accused by a member of the faculty of victim shaming for pointing out that many pedestrians cross streets—assuming them safe—with, more often than not, their faces buried in a cell phone. The accuser added that CH didn’t have room for people like me. So, steel your nerves.

    Lastly, now within months of my 70th “Circle ‘Round the Sun,” I’d like to invite Chief Blue and truly invested Council members to join me for coffee to sit for a whole hour at a variety of bus stops about town observing traffic and pedestrians. While it won’t yield significant quantitative data, it will allow attendees to see issues with serious speeding, red light running, and careless pedestrians firsthand. I assure you it will be eye opening. Chief Blue, I request you and other officers to be plainclothed. If you have portable speed guns, bring one. We’ll spread them out over a few weeks and at varied times mostly 8-9 AM, Noon, and 4-5PM. Stops must include Coffee Shop, MLK at Shadowood and at the intersection with Homestead which is just down from that tragic pedestrian death a few years back, Pittsboro at NCSECU, on East Franklin at the mid-street crossing between Estes and Elliot, and my favorite, at Eastgate.

    I know this is a big investment in time but these are all primary commuter stops and where I have witnessed significant speeding. While there, we’ll make note of riders to sit and observe since it is the rider’s fault if they miss the bus and also, note the overall cleanliness around the stop as well as how well riders observe unenforced standards like no littering and no smoking. From this you’ll see yet another reason why our uppity residents don’t use public transportation.

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