Samantha Nolan knew traffic was getting bad in her longtime neighborhood on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., but it wasn't until she saw two pedestrians hit by speeding cars that she launched a fierce lobbying campaign to educate and empower pedestrians in her community.
"I can still picture those two accidents," she said, recalling the nightmarish vision of airborne pedestrians just moments after they were struck. Although she witnessed the accidents years ago, "that vision doesn't ever leave your mind."
Now, thanks to Nolan (who jokes that she has seven jobs "and they're all volunteer"), two of the most dangerous intersections on her neighborhood's stretch of the six-lane wide Connecticut Avenue—a major throughway between Washington and neighboring Montgomery County, Md.—are now equipped with spiky metal trees of bright orange pedestrian safety flags. The flags (which are donned with reflective images of stop signs) were once the butt of jokes, but are now used by scores of people every day to confidently cross pedestrian crosswalks that do not have traffic lights.
For Charlotte Peltz, the moment she knew she had to get involved in pedestrian safety volunteering was when she learned that, according to the Federal Highway Administration, a pedestrian is killed or injured every seven minutes.
"When I put all the statistics together, it was as if an airplane of 190 people went down every two weeks," the Hawaii resident and AARP volunteer recalled of her shock. "We would be up in arms if that happened in this country."
Working alongside her husband Harvey, an AARP regional driver safety coordinator, Charlotte's efforts culminated in a statewide audit by 250 volunteers of the 50 most dangerous intersections in Hawaii, and landmark legislative success: the passage of SB 1192, which appropriated $3 million for statewide pedestrian safety improvements and a 2007 pedestrian safety awareness program.
With more pedestrian fatalities per capita in its 65 and over population than any other state, Hawaii is a dangerous place to cross the street. And, despite images of gently swaying palms and pristine beaches, busy roadways—often one-way and four, five or even six-lanes wide—are a trademark of its capital city of Honolulu.
Gone are the days when people could quickly jaunt across a two-lane road, recollected Peltz, 80, of her childhood in Maryland. "You had two lanes, one going in each direction," she said. "You could run across the street. A one-way street that's five or six lanes wide, you can't make it—anybody, young or old."
That's why Peltz has made it her personal mission to educate anyone she comes across on the cold, hard facts of pedestrian safety. She speaks to senior citizen groups, hands out multi-lingual pedestrian safety brochures, sets up booths at local malls—whatever it takes to get the word out about things like making eye contact with drivers, wearing reflective clothing when walking at night, and absolutely never jaywalking.
"We've got a lot more traffic and a lot more speeding," Nolan said of both her Chevy Chase, Md., neighborhood and Washington, as a whole. "Our drivers have become less courteous. Everyone seems to be in a rush and that goes for pedestrians as well. Our pedestrians have gotten less cautious and more daring and that's leading to more accidents. It takes two: It takes a driver and pedestrian, and if both are disregarding laws, you run into problems on the road."
Nolan's efforts have resulted in legislative change as well. Now all cars in the District must stop—instead of simply yielding—for pedestrians. It's been a long journey, but the community activist was never intimidated by what others may have seen as a daunting task in a city that always seems to be moving.
"You just have to jump in," she advised those interested in volunteering their time to pedestrian safety. "You have to find out who's in charge and who you need to meet and who's making the decisions."
She also recommends combing the Internet to learn about what other communities are doing around the country to promote pedestrian safety.
"Don't try to reinvent the wheel. Don't spend a lot of time doing work that's already been done. You don't want to waste your time," she said, mentioning that the orange flags were a tried-and-true method used in other communities.
Peltz's advice? Don't be afraid to start small.
"I think that if every community, every little community, no matter how large or small, if they work at it, we can reduce [pedestrian fatalities]," she said with confidence. "If we all do our share, we can make it better."
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