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Friday, October 05, 2012 9:55 PM

Police chief launches new pedestrian safety effort

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer

In Ottawa, as in most cities, it is not uncommon to see pedestrians cross the street against traffic signals or in the middle of the block. 

And sometimes motorists turning street corners forget to yield the right of way to pedestrians in crosswalks — causing walkers to halt in mid-stride.

All of these actions are traffic safety violations, and the Ottawa Police Department has seen the number of complaints about such violations increase in recent years, Dennis Butler, Ottawa police chief, said. 

So Butler said he decided to launch an initiative to heighten awareness about pedestrian and bicyclist safety — patterned after a program used in Washington, D.C., and other metropolitan cities.

Butler kicked off the Ottawa Police Department’s month-long Street Smart campaign — which runs through Nov. 2 — with a press conference Friday morning on the southeast corner of the busy intersection of First and Main streets in downtown Ottawa. 

“I think more people are walking and riding bicycles today than in the past, and this four-week campaign is designed to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety,” Butler said as a steady stream of cars poured down Main Street behind him.

Street Smart is a public education, awareness and behavioral-change campaign, Butler said. 

The first two weeks of the campaign will be focused on education, he said. Volunteers will distribute flyers downtown that include safety tips for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers — as well as include statutory regulations regarding sidewalks.

“It’s unlawful to ride bicycles or skateboards on city sidewalks, but people do not feel safe riding their bikes in the street,” Butler said. “This [flyer] provides safety tips to show bicyclists how they can ride safely on the street.”

Those tips include: 

• Never ride against traffic. Ride with traffic to avoid potential accidents.

• Use hand signals to tell motorists what you intend to do.

• Ride in a straight line to the right of traffic and at least a car door width away from parked cars.

Police officers also will hand out flyers along with warnings during the first two weeks of the campaign when they see violations.

The second two weeks of the campaign, starting Oct. 19, will focus on enforcement, with officers potentially handing out citations to pedestrians, cyclists or motorists who commit violations, Butler said.

The department will measure the results of the campaign by calculating the number of flyers distributed, as well as the number of warnings or citations issued, the police chief said.

The campaign is meant to complement, not replace, the efforts of the city to build safer streets and sidewalks, enforce laws, and train better drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, the department’s news release said.

One such tip for bicyclists is to always wear a helmet.

“I see bicyclists riding without helmets,” Butler said. “While a bicyclist might have the right of way, if you are hit by a car, chances are you are going to suffer a more serious injury than the person in the car.”

While Ottawa does not have a critical traffic safety problem, the Street Smart program has been initiated as a preemptive effort to keep downtown streets safe for everyone to maintain a sustainable and livable community, the news release said.

Pedestrian safety has been a growing concern among police on a national level, illustrated through statistics provided by the Ottawa Police Department:

• 4,092 pedestrians died in traffic crashes in 2009. Pedestrians account for nearly 12 percent of total traffic deaths.

• An estimated 59,000 pedestrians were injured in traffic crashes in 2009 in the U.S.

• On average, a pedestrian was killed every two hours and injured every nine minutes in traffic crashes.

• More than 90 percent of pedestrian fatalities occurred in single vehicle crashes.

“We don’t have a lot accidents downtown, but we’ve [recently] had three bad accidents at Seventh and Main, just outside the downtown district,” Butler said. “We want to do all we can to keep everyone safe.”

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