Chapel Hill Town Council member Maria Palmer was driving on West Rosemary Street near Shortbread Lofts when a young man abruptly stepped in front of her car instead of walking to the crosswalk.
“If I’m driving and he has 30 feet to go, and I’m five feet in front of him, I know my car is going to be way past the crosswalk before he steps onto the street, but not if he cuts across,” she said. “They’re distracted, and they’re doing their phone thing. This sounds stupid to put guardrails so kids don’t step into the street in front of cars, but how do we condition people to use those crosswalks and to wait for the car to stop?”
A decision Wednesday to lower the speed limit on Rosemary Street from 25 mph to 20 mph was billed as a step toward making it safer for everyone. The Town Council’s vote matches the speed along that road with speed limits on Franklin Street and Main Street in Carrboro.
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It’s the second speed limit reduction in town. The 45 mph speed limit on Eubanks Road is now 35 mph from N.C. 86 to Millhouse Road. The first phase of construction started along that stretch this summer at the 55-acre Carraway Village development, which could add thousands of new residents, employees and shoppers to Eubanks Road.
Kumar Neppalli, the town’s traffic engineering manager, said they also are talking with the N.C. Department of Transportation about adding standard traffic signals to some crosswalks on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in the next four to six months.
Roughly 26,000 cars travel Rosemary Street every week during the summer, more than doubling to 54,000 when UNC students return, police Capt. Donnie Rhoads said. Data shows most drive between 25 mph and 29 mph.
Meanwhile, there’s an average of 1,300 pedestrians, with hundreds more joining them during the weekends, he said, and roughly 155 cyclists.
N.C. Department of Transportation data shows there were 148 pedestrian-involved crashes in Chapel Hill between January 2007 to December 2013. Roughly a quarter involved pedestrians or drivers failing to yield the right of way, the data shows. Most resulted in some sort of injury to the pedestrian, it shows, and seven happened on Rosemary Street.
The town improved the Rosemary Street streetscape this year, upgrading sidewalks and adding bike lanes and colorful crosswalks. Businesses and residents reacted positively to those changes and are asking now for flashing crosswalk signals and electronic speed display signs, Rhoads said.
Council member George Cianciolo said he also has concerns about unsafe pedestrians, especially if adding crosswalk lights to Rosemary Street gives them a false sense of security.
“I’ve had within the last week, two or three incidences of pedestrians, students, with their earbuds in and everything else, just stepping right off the curb into the crosswalk,” he said, “and I’m afraid that when they hit the button they’re even more likely to step off without looking, assuming the lights are going to protect me.”
Police regularly educate pedestrians and enforce rules about how to safely cross the street, Rhoads said. They also can look into whether there have been any studies relating crosswalks to unsafe pedestrian behaviors, he said.
“Part of that is actually educating people about how to properly cross the street, which sounds crazy,” he said. “You’ve got to make sure the roadway is clear before you actually step out into the roadway.”