Mean streets: Crossing Cortez’s byways proves to be no walk in the park

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Cortez City Councilman Jim Herrick was driving through Cortez around 3:30 on the afternoon of Oct. 1 when he spotted something strange.

“I was stopped at a stoplight and I caught sight of this object flying through the air and rolling down the road,” he said. “Then I saw it was a man. For a second I thought, ‘This is a funny place to be rolling around’.”

Then he realized the man had been struck by a car.

Rushing to the victim’s side, Herrick was stunned to realize it was City Manager Hal Shepherd. Shepherd, who had been walking back to City Hall after a meeting at the Montezuma County Courthouse, was crossing Main Street in the crosswalk when he was struck by a car turning left onto Main from Ash Street.

Shepherd was taken to the hospital with a fractured wrist, bruised ribs, whiplash, a concussion and multiple cuts and bruises, but he was lucky – he survived. The driver, 56-year-old Paul Bilger of Cortez, was cited for careless driving causing injury.

The accident brought renewed attention to longtime concerns about pedestrian safety in Cortez, particularly downtown. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed, according to Dottie Wayt, a member of the Mainstreet Association, a group of downtown merchants.

In mid-October, the association wrote to Shepherd asking the city to investigate the problem.

“We asked them to address the situation and enforce the existing speed limits because of safety and also because of noise pollution,” Wayt said. “One of the goals of the Mainstreet Association is a more pedestrian-friendly atmosphere and that’s one of the things that destroys it.”

Cortez’s Main Street is also Highway 160, a fact that is a boon to business but a bane to pedestrians. Though patrolled by city police, Main is actually the province of the state. The Colorado Department of Transportation has final say over the number and type of signs that can be erected along Main, the number and location of stoplights, and the amount of time pedestrians are given to get across.

CDOT officials say Main is reasonably safe and has a low rate of pedestrian-vehicle accidents.

But that’s not the way downtown Cortez is perceived. People who walk there regularly see it as a minefield – with grim-faced drivers zooming through intersections on the yellow and red, confusing crosswalks that seem to beckon pedestrians unprotected into traffic, and flashing countdown signals that offer only the fleet of foot adequate time to get to the opposite curb.

“No, I don’t think Cortez is pedestrian-friendly, because people don’t stop at crosswalks,” said Walt Abel of Dolores. “I think Montezuma County is one of the most dangerous places I’ve ever walked or biked.”

Wayt, who works at Cortez Travel on Main, said few drivers obey the posted downtown speed limit of 25 mph. “People really are not observing the speed limit or anything close to it,” she said. “That’s why we took a stand.”

Speeding on Main wasn’t a factor in the accident that sent Shepherd to the hospital. But observers say speeding, driver carelessness, inadequate signs, and insufficient time to cross the street all contribute to a general feeling that downtown Cortez is a risky place to take a stroll.

Susan Keck, owner of Susie’s Hallmark on Main Street, said Shepherd’s accident was an extreme outcome of a fairly common occurrence.

“When you’re crossing the street, a lot of times you’ll have the right of way but there’s a driver on a side street who’s turning who won’t stop,” she said. “I was almost hit one time a couple years ago, because this person was turning left and didn’t pay attention.

“That, I think, is one of the problems that people need to be aware of when they’re making a turn, to pay attention to the crosswalks. They just barrel on through and you’re out there going, ‘Excuse me!’”

But Keck added that pedestrians need to be alert and cautious, too.

“We teach our kids to look both ways when they cross the street, but we as adults tend not to do that,” she said.

Nationwide, although pedestrian fatalities have been declining since 1975, there were 4,739 pedestrians killed by motor vehicles in 2000, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Another 78,000 pedestrians were injured.

According to statistics:

• People are more likely to be killed by a car while walking than to be shot by a stranger.

• Children are the most common victims of pedestrian-vehicle accidents, but elderly pedestrians are the most likely to die in such an accident.

• More than half of adult pedestrians who are killed by vehicle are alcohol-impaired.

Cortez Police Lt. Detective Jim Shethar has been concerned for some time about the situation on Main Street. “I brought this issue up a couple of months ago (with the police chief and city),” he said.

Like many others, he wants to see more and better signs posted to alert drivers to pedestrians. But signage, he learned, is strictly limited by CDOT.

Ed Demming, regional traffic and safety engineer with CDOT in Durango, said he does not see major problems in Cortez. “What we have is a very safe situation. The accident rates in Cortez are very low and there’s not too much driver frustration (because of constant stoplights),” he said. “From my point of view, at least, we’re doing a pretty good job.”

Police said they could not provide statistics on the number of pedestrian-vehicle accidents in Cortez.

Demming says right turns on red, which are legal in all states, are the biggest danger to pedestrians. But he is also concerned about “unsignalized” crosswalks – those without stoplights.

Pedestrians often launch themselves into traffic at places such as Beech and Main, where there is such a crosswalk. Although small signs advise drivers to stop for people in the crosswalks, they rarely do.

Keck said she tries to stop for pedestrians, but it seems to create more problems. “It’s almost scary. You don’t know whether to stop, because you’re afraid the person in the lane beside you will barrel on by and hit the pedestrian, or you’ll get rear-ended (by a driver that doesn’t stop),” she said.

The Model Traffic Code for Colorado Municipalities says that, at intersections lacking signals, drivers should yield to pedestrians in crosswalks “when the pedestrian is upon the half of the roadway upon which the vehicle is traveling or when the pedestrian is approaching so closely from the opposite half of the roadway as to be in danger.”

What that means, according to Cortez Police Lt. Darrell Hinton, is that a driver traveling on Main in the far right lane wouldn’t have to stop for a pedestrian leaving the curb on the opposite site. But once the pedestrian reaches the next lane of traffic – the “middle half” of the street, as it were – drivers should stop.

Drivers should also stop in both lanes in one direction if another driver is stopped, Hinton said. But saying a driver “should” stop doesn’t mean he will.

“It’s a very confusing law and very difficult to enforce,” Shethar said. Also, budget cuts have left the police department under-staffed, which means fewer cars available to patrol.

And ticketing someone for failure to yield to a pedestrian is somewhat of a dicey proposition, Hinton said. Unless the officer can get the pedestrian to testify, it’s simply the officer’s word against the driver’s.

Demming advises pedestrians simply not to use crosswalks without a light. “On a four-lane street like in Cortez, that’s the worst place for a pedestrian to cross, because one car will stop in one lane and the other car doesn’t know why,” he said.

A common complaint in Cortez is insufficient time to cross the road. People in pedestrian-friendly downtown Durango have 28 seconds to cross even small side streets off of that city’s Main, which is not a state highway.

In contrast, pedestrians seeking to cross Cortez’s 75-foot-wide Main Street get anywhere from 22 seconds (at Mildred and at Harrison, by City Market) to 17 (at Chestnut).

To cross Main’s side streets, pedestrians are allowed up to 17 seconds (on Market) or as few as 11 (on Harrison).

“Is it enough time for someone who’s 78, with a cane?” asked Hinton. “Ask CDOT.”

Demming said the Main Street crossings should be the same length of time. But he said the time is adequate if you leave the curb promptly when the signal changes. An industry rule of thumb is to assume pedestrians can walk 4 feet per second, but that presumes the walker is reasonably fit and the streets aren’t icy.

Crossing times can’t be too lengthy or drivers will become frustrated at having to stop too often and too long, which can cause more problems, he said.

For decades city planners nationwide have struggled to improve pedestrian safety. Some measures have already helped in the local region, Demming said, such as bright, inlaid plastic crosswalks and the time-countdown signals.

Cities such as Salt Lake City, Utah, have tried many other tactics. One involves having pedestrians pick up orange flags as they leave the curb and hold them as they cross, to increase visibility.

But Shethar, told of that idea, sighed.

“Who knows where those flags would be in 10 months?” he said, describing how a plan to provide free bikes for use in Cortez years ago ended after all the bikes were stolen.

Other measures Salt Lake City has employed include in-pavement or overhead blinking lights, activated by pedestrians, that alert motorists that someone is walking. But such measures cost money, something the city of Cortez does not have in abundance.

Many local citizens would like to see “pop-up” pedestrian signs in the center of Main, like the sign on Mildred Avenue between the city’s parks, which has been effective in alerting drivers to the 20-mph speed limit there.

But Demming said CDOT’s policies forbid putting such signs along Main because they’re distracting to drivers. “It’s more stuff in the way,” he said.

The Mainstreet Association hopes the city will consider installing narrow, raised medians along Main, which slow traffic and give pedestrians an island of safety, Wayt said.

“We’d rather do something now before something bad happens,” she said.

But Demming said signs, lights, and other technical solutions can only do so much. What needs to change, he believes, is driver awareness and attitude. He walks 5 miles a day in Durango and said pedestrians aren’t safe there, either.

“We’ve kind of created a huge sprawling monster of a transportation system,” Demming said. “People expect, especially here, to be able to drive 100 mph. Having the state highways run through towns is a big headache for us.

“It seems because there are fewer and fewer pedestrians, people who drive forget what it’s like to be a pedestrian. I’ve had people come within a couple feet of me going 40 mph.

“I think you either have a culture that accepts pedestrians, or you don’t. The real problem is that drivers need to be educated a little bit more.”

Despite having witnessed two pedestrian-vehicle accidents – Shepherd’s, and another a decade ago, also on Main – Herrick believes downtown Cortez is far safer than it used to be. When he was a kid, he said, there were two bars across the street from each other and drunks used to stagger from one to the other, often getting hit. “Three to four times a year there would be a fatal,” he said. “It was crazy.”

He said downtown Cortez is probably no more dangerous “than you would expect it to be with the amount of traffic and the geography of the town.” Herrick is more concerned about the situation on Broadway (Highway 491), especially at Seventh, Third and Empire streets.

“Having a state highway running through town is bad,” Herrick said, “but the alternative is not having a state highway running through town, which is really bad from an economic standpoint.”

For now, the best advice experts offer those on foot is:

• Always wait for the walk light. Sometimes people think they should go because they see traffic moving in their direction, but there may be a left-turn arrow on for drivers facing you.

• Don’t jaywalk and don’t use unsignalized crosswalks. Burn a few extra calories and walk to where there’s a light.

• Look all around you before setting out. Try to make eye contact with the drivers stopped at lights.

“The pedestrian issue is a real tough one,” Demming said. “I think highway engineers are a lot to blame for making our roads less pedestrian-friendly. We’re in the business to move traffic and we’ve not looked at the pedestrian issue as well as we could. But we’re starting to look at it more.”

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From November 2003.