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A shared responsibility’

Megan Doyle | Tuesday, November 27, 2012

In response to an increase in pedestrian-vehicle accidents and near misses on campus and surrounding roads, the University will fund the installation of a new crosswalk system at the intersection of Vaness and Tywckenham Roads on the eastern edge of campus.

The first HAWK crosswalk system in St. Joseph County will be installed at the intersection during the spring semester. Mike Seamon, associate vice president of campus safety, called the HAWK system both “smart” and “dynamic.”

“Once the system is engaged or activated, it makes it clear to both pedestrians and vehicles what they are supposed to do,” he said. “It takes out any ambiguity.”

Currently, pedestrians must press a button to activate a flashing yellow light that warns drivers of traffic in the crosswalk. Students often bypass the button or cross into the street before cars might have seen them, Seamon said.

Under the HAWK system, a motion detector will sense the pedestrian traffic approaching the crosswalk and automatically activate a flashing yellow light for motorists. The light will then turn red, indicating drivers should stop at the intersection. A sign for pedestrians will also change to a walking figure when it is safe to cross or indicate with a hand signal that they should remain on the curb.

“I think going forward if we look to say, ‘How do we best address this?’, we have to readily admit it’s a shared responsibility amongst all people and all parties,” Seamon said. “We cannot expect that one of those entities yields all the burden of this.”

Tim Sexton, associate vice president of State and Local Affairs, said the HAWK system is over 95 percent effective in managing crosswalks and preventing accidents. The University will fund the installation of the system, for which Sexton said he does not yet know an estimated cost.

Sexton said the project is a collaboration between the University administration, student government and St. Joseph County.

“When you look at all those different players that are touching this too, everyone is passionate,” Sexton said.

The HAWK system will be the first of its kind in the county, but the University would plan to install two further systems in a proposed realignment of Douglas Road next summer. The plans for that realignment will be subject to vote by the County Council on Dec. 4, Sexton said.

“I think one of the things that this Douglas Road rerouting and this issue down at Twyckenham and Vaness is giving us opportunity [to do is] to put in some very, very effective pedestrian crossings,” he said. “It could have been a lot worse.”

This intersection, located on the eastern edge of campus, has been a particular point of concern in recent weeks. Two students, both crossing Twyckenham on bikes, were involved in accidents within one week of each other. Neither student suffered severe injuries.

On Nov. 1, senior Ramon Yip was biking across the street around 9:30 p.m. in darkness when a bus hit him in the crosswalk.

“It was kind of my fault because I didn’t see the bus until I was crossing the intersection already,” he said. “As soon as I saw the bus, I slammed on the brakes as hard as I could and the bus driver swerved, so that helped. … It could have been a lot worse.”

A passing police officer stopped to help Yip, and he was treated for a minor injury to his elbow at the hospital.

Less than a week later on Nov. 7, a car hit senior Monica O’Hearn as she cycled across the same crosswalk. She also suffered only minor injuries from the crash, but her roommate, senior Karen Allen, began to circulate a student petition to install a stoplight at the intersection.

Yip signed the petition when he found a link to it on Facebook.

“I didn’t know that multiple accidents have nearly happened or have happened there,” he said. “I didn’t know until I saw the petition.”

While Yip said the HAWK system seems to be an improvement, he hopes to see better lighting on the road in the future as well.

Seamon cited accidents more serious than the most recent incidents as sparks for the University’s concern.

In October 2011, a female student suffered injuries from a car crash on campus near the A15 parking lot as she jogged across the road. Just over one month ago, Saint Mary’s sophomore Ziqi Zhang was killed in a car accident as she biked across State Route 933 near the entrance of the College. While the intersection at Vaness and Twyckenham will be the location of the new HAWK system, Seamon said pedestrian safety on an around campus continues to be a priority for the administration.

“This is an issue that’s always been there,” Seamon said. “It’s not new, but it seems like we have a new focus and resolve because there’s just a lot of incidents that are happening so we’re trying to put everyone together to say, ‘Let’s strategize on how best to address this.'”

County engineer Jessica Clark said in an email interview Monday this particular intersection proposed a number of challenges for pedestrians and vehicles alike as its surrounding neighborhood continues to grow.

One particular challenge at this location is sight distance, or the ability for a driver or pedestrian to sufficiently see one another and other vehicles in order to react, both looking from Vaness and when traveling south on Twyckenham from Bulla Road, she said.

“The roadway profile elevation and curvature play a part in evaluating the intersection at Vaness,” Clark said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration have found the HAWK system and other similar systems to be “statistically significant” in reducing crashes, Clark said, and the new system was the next logical step up from the marked crosswalk and refuge islands currently at the intersection.

“The pedestrian-activated flashing beacons and additional warning signage installed a few years back were installed to enhance safety,” she said. “With the increase in pedestrian traffic at this location, the HAWK system provides a more protected environment for pedestrians to cross the road.”

Senior Michael Masi, director of the department of University affairs in student government, said students have come to him since the start of his term in May to complain about the intersection. Student government will look to educate students and drivers about this new system in the months before its installation.

“I brought it up to [student body president Brett Rocheleau and student body vice president Katie Rose], and they’ve been totally on board with this idea,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out a way that we can also communicate this information to students, to be more open about the process.”

Masi echoed the administration’s call to both drivers and students to work together to improve safety on and around campus.

“It is a shared responsibility,” he said. “Students have to use what is put in place. There’s only so much we can advocate for. They’re going to put in this HAWK system that is top of the line but students have to utilize it.”