EDITORIAL: What have we learned?

LAST WE HEARD, State Police were still investigating the accident that took the life of Valatie business owner Joan Archer. She was struck by an SUV in a pedestrian crosswalk in the village June 14. She died after being transported to Albany Medical Center. She was 77.

There wasn’t any obvious reason why this happened. The weather was not a factor. It was noon on a Monday. The crosswalk is at the intersection of Church Street and Main. It runs parallel to Main Street, and for all purposes it’s an extension of the Main Street sidewalk where it meets Church Street. Ms. Archer’s shop was on Main Street. People who knew her say she walked everywhere she went in the village.

The lines on the crosswalk were recently repainted, according to Valatie Mayor Frank Bevens.

But some drivers still don’t know that state law requires motorists to yield the right of way to a pedestrian in a crosswalk where there are no traffic signals. There are state penalties for drivers who fail to obey: 3 points on your license; $150 fine, 15 days in jail. They don’t account for the cost of a life.

You don’t have to speculate about what led the driver to collide with Ms. Archer to appreciate how dangerous crosswalks can be. There are four villages in Columbia County, and each has crosswalks without traffic signals. People who live in those villages will tell you that too many motorists still see safe passage for pedestrians in a crosswalk as a negotiation, not a right.

How dangerous is it? The state Department of Health collects the figures, reporting, “Injuries to pedestrians are among the top 10 leading causes of injury-related hospital admissions and death for almost all age groups in New York State. Approximately 300 pedestrians are killed and 15,000 are injured by motor vehicles each year on the state’s roadways, and more than 3,000 pedestrians are admitted to the hospital annually.”

Mayor Bevens has formed a Main Street Traffic Safety Committee, which he said will “suggest” safety improvements to the state Department of Transportation (DOT). He uses the word advisedly. Main Street in Valatie and the main street of each of the other three villages in the county are state highways and only the state is allowed to modify those roads and intersections. So the committee can suggest, among other measures, the most obvious and least expensive step to prevent another tragedy at that intersection: STOP signs on Main Street at the Church Street intersection.

That would reduce the speed of vehicles traveling both directions on Main Street, and it would slow drivers turning onto Church Street, giving them a moment to assess whether there’s a human being in the crosswalk ahead. In the past, good ideas like this would be stored in a locked cabinet at the bottom of a DOT sub basement. Why? Because the DOT’s mandate is to make traffic flow more smoothly, which is to say, faster.

But over the last few years the DOT has occasionally lowered speed limits where that change is likely to prevent accidents. The construction of roundabouts is another example of the DOT’s slower-is-better approach, even though critics incorrectly condemned roundabouts as gateways to an automotive Armageddon.

We can also hope the DOT understands that we are going to have to slow down wherever traveling more slowly reduces the amount of carbon our lifestyle emits. We need safer streets because, like Ms. Archer, we should be walking to where we need to go. We also need to adopt methods more efficient for traveling—nearby and far away—than the ones available right now. Villages are the perfect places to experiment with these changes; the scale here is manageable and the cost is still affordable.

Those of us who didn’t know Joan Archer should be wary of laying claim to her legacy for causes we support. But at the very least we can be grateful that she has brought heightened awareness to the need for safer streets in one of our communities and perhaps others as well.

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