The Local

ASHLAND – The Town of Ashland is one of the most walkable communities in Virginia, and that pedestrian-friendly atmosphere is one of its most valuable assets.

That doesn’t mean walking the streets or crossing the town’s crosswalks doesn’t come without its own set of safety issues.

The importance of that issue hit close to home for an Ashland couple earlier this year, and they have their own story regarding pedestrian safety in the town. They told Ashland Town Council of their encounter at the Tuesday, Sept. 17, meeting.

Ashland resident Steve Hylan and his wife experienced the hazards of using a crosswalk first-hand when a car struck them as they attempted to cross a busy Ashland street.

“My wife and I were struck here on England Street on Feb. 11,” Hyland said.

“Moving about Ashland is becoming increasingly dangerous,” Hylan told council. “The Governor’s Highway Safety Administration reports that pedestrian fatalities now account for 16 percent of traffic deaths and over 6,200 pedestrian fatalities occurred last year in the United States,” he added. “Every year the number grows by 2, 3 or 4%.”

Hylan said those number don’t tell the whole story or properly reflect the impact of such accidents.

“I wasn’t able to go back to work until June and my wife was able to go back in July but just last week is starting full-time work. That’s quite a break in our lifetime,” Hylan said.

While the causes of pedestrian accidents are varied and can be attributed to a number of factors, Hylan offered a unique take on the crashes.

“My observation is that most drivers are self-centered,” Hylan said.

While acknowledging factors like cell phone use and traffic congestion, Hylan described a situation where drivers become “irritated” when they see bikers or pedestrians using the crosswalks and realize they must yield.

“I catch myself doing that from time to time,” he said. “I think it’s endemic.”

Hylan said the real problem is a society that favors automobiles more than pedestrians. To correct the problem in Ashland, he suggested the town “go against the flow.”

For example, Hylan noted the new redesigned intersection at England Street and U.S. 1 still presents safety hazards for pedestrians due to right turn on red incidents. He said vehicles often stop on the crosswalk so they see well enough to proceed.

“The drivers want to keep going. They don’t want to stop,” Hylan said.

He suggested a system that requires all traffic to stop for a period of time in order to allow pedestrians safe passage through busy intersections, admitting a change like that wouldn’t be easy.

He also suggested placing speed bumps in front of crosswalks. “This would return preoccupied drivers’ focus to the road.”

Hylan said separating high transit areas from high use pedestrian zones could alleviate some of the accidents too. England Street is not only a busy thoroughfare but also a pedestrian-friendly shopping district.

“If you want the Main Street concept, there has to be some kind of bypass,” Hylan said.

He encouraged council members to “park your vehicles and spend some time walking Ashland. It could be a fun and eye-opening experience.”

Mayor Steve Trivett said the town is exploring options to address the problem, and Police Chief Doug Goodman has approached the Virginia General Assembly regarding enhanced enforcement measures.

“We haven’t made a firm decision,” he said. “We don’t want to ticket people as the only way of getting their attention; we also don’t want any more accidents.”

“I think many of his remarks were spot-on,” Goodman said regarding Hylan’s assertions. “I am sorry you had to live through that,” he told Hylan and his wife.

Goodman said the town recently conducted crosswalk safety operations and issued two citations to drivers who ignored the clearly marked areas.

“Most of our drivers are being attentive,” Goodman said. “This is a complex issue and there’s not one silver bullet that will fix it.”

Goodman said the new enforcement measures could provide options, but they could require additional signage, public hearings and approval by council.

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