Federal Way pedestrians must beat feet to stay safe on streets
June 13, 2008 · Updated 10:17 AM
"Sometimes Karen Hedwig Backman feels like an endangered species.As a pedestrian in an automobile-focused society, she must deal with drivers' frustrations and impatience without the benefit of being behind the wheel of a several-thousand-pound vehicle herself.When she crosses Pacific Highway at South 312th Street to do her grocery shopping, Hedwig Backman gets an acknowledging smile from some drivers. Others ignore her or scowl at her as she walks around the crosswalk they've blocked. As she walks along Pacific Highway, a few drivers have veered off the street to make her jump. But the 60-year-old Federal Way resident must contend with more than rude drivers. A childhood bout of polio left Hedwig Backman with permanent leg trouble. Frequently, she can only cross one lane of traffic of Pacific Highway before the red hand starts flashing at her.Federal Way, she believes, is a dangerous place to be a pedestrian.I cross very carefully at lights and I pray, she said.Making pedestrians like Hedwig Backman feel comfortable walking along Pacific Highway and elsewhere in the city center is key to the city's plans of developing a thriving downtown. Instead of people driving from shopping complex to shopping complex, the city hopes to lure people away from their cars and into the habit of ambling from shop to shop.But doing that might be the toughest piece of the downtown puzzle, said Rick Perez, the city's traffic engineer.Pedestrian safety is one of the most challenging aspects of traffic engineering because managing pedestrians is like herding cats, Perez said. No matter what you provide, it doesn't necessarily mean that's what they'll use.Changing drivers' behavior presents as much of a challenge. King County District Court Judith Eiler, who works out of Federal Way, serves on the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission Board, which has focused much of its efforts on educating people about safety in school zones. Bad drivers are everywhere but some don't believe their behavior is anything out of the ordinary, she said.It's a statewide problem but when I sit at a light I think, 'Hey, are we the capital of the red light runners?' Eiler asks of Federal Way. We're doing a damned good job of trying for that title. We've got to stop this bad behavior. We truly kind of inside us think when the light turns yellow it means drive really fast and get through it.Despite an increasing number of vehicles on the road, the number of pedestrian-vehicle collisions has steadily fallen over the last few years.Nationwide, the number dropped from 6,556 in 1989 to 4,906 in 1999, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In Washington, the number dropped from 72 in 1996 to 54 for 2000, through Dec. 1, an 8.6 percent average yearly decrease, according to the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission.In Federal Way, traffic collisions involving pedestrians or bike riders remain a small percentage of of the total number of collisions to which police respond. Total traffic collisions reported were 2,292 in 1998, 2,435 in 1999 and 2,338 in 2000 while collisions involving pedestrians were 50 in 1998, 34 in 1999 and 51 in 2000. Police records indicate one fatality involving a pedestrian in 1998, one in 1999 and one in 2000. * On Oct. 29, 1998, Rodney Leno was hit while crossing Pacific Highway near the South 304th Street intersection. Eight other vehicles drove over the man's body. All but one kept going.* On Jan. 20, 1999, Leveca Lee Babcock, a resident of the Meridian Court II senior apartments on 23rd Avenue South near Hillside Plaza, was struck and killed by a vehicle while crossing the street between two crosswalks. * Most recently, on May 4, 2000, Rodney Brown was struck by a vehicle while standing or walking on the shoulder of Pacific Highway South near South 333rd Street. A woman swerved in front of a pickup truck, which struck her car and bounced onto the side of the street. Pacific Highway remains a pedestrian traffic trouble spot because it's one of the city's busiest arterial and the street contains some of the longest stretches of street between traffic lights. But by Thursday, one trouble spot not far from the downtown should be eased.Through a state pedestrian safety grant and a federal general traffic safety grant, the city has installed traffic lights at South 330th Street on Pacific Highway. Perez expects the lights to be turned on Thursday. The light means that instead of walking out of their way to cross at South 336th or South 324th streets or sprinting across the street in between those signals, pedestrians can cross safely at the new light. Many people risked it and crossed between the existing lights, which are located three-quarters of a mile apart, Perez said.We can at least make it a little safer and reroute some of them, he said, probably not all of them. Many pedestrian-vehicle collisions are preventable, said Federal Way police officer John Kamiya. Tips to drivers and pedestrians alike amount to common sense. Pedestrians, for instance, should look both ways before crossing a street and wear light-colored clothing to be more visible to motorists. Drivers need to be on the alert for pedestrians and bike riders.They forgot to do that, Kamiya said, because they're wrapped up in getting to work or going home from work. They look out for other vehicles but may forgot to look for the harder-to-spot walkers.They should always expect the unexpected, he said, and assume there's a pedestrian on the sidewalk at every crosswalk.Extra driver alertness would ease the minds of frequent pedestrians Bettie Wiles, 73, and Anna Wagenhals, 14. Wagenhals walks about a quarter of a mile to Lakota Junior High, where she's a ninth-grader. She frequently encounters drivers who won't stop for her even though she's in or near a crosswalk and has the right of way. I think it's kind of annoying actually, she said. We do have the right of way. They need to watch where they're going. That's one of the parts of being a good driver is being aware of their surroundings.On Jan. 20, 1999, Wiles lost a good friend to a pedestrian-vehicle collision. Friends say Babcock crossed where she felt safe and that wasn't at either of the two crosswalks across 23rd Avenue South. Neither offers a clear line of sight in both directions, residents say.Her death sparked a petition drive that resulted in 1,000 signatures from senior housing residents and Hillside Plaza patrons and merchants. The petitioners didn't get what they sought - a pedestrian-activated traffic signal- but the council later lowered the speed limit there 25 mph. Vehicles continue to speed through there and senior housing residents continue to fear for their safety.Nobody feels safe crossing the street out there, nobody does, Wiles said. Every time we cross the street we just have to pray we get there and back.When Hedwig Backman thinks about pedestrian safety, she's reminded of a sign she saw near the SeaTac International Airport that read: Pedestrians are human too.There should be a bunch of those up. "