Motorists of Warwick be warned – obey traffic laws and respect the rights of way of pedestrians entering crosswalks, otherwise you might be pulled over and put on blast as part of an ongoing series of educational exercises by the Warwick Police Department that target dangerous behavior at crosswalks around the city.
Last Thursday morning, the police conducted the first of what they said will be many subsequent exercises of the “Walk Wise Warwick Program,” a program now in its second year which deploys a plain-clothes officer at a crosswalk and tests the statutory knowledge and safety wariness of motorists.
“The Warwick Police Department in the year 2017 year to date has investigated 13 accidents that have involved our crash reconstruction team,” said Major Rick Rathbun of the Warwick Police Department. “Those numbers are higher than what are normal statistically. We normally average about 10 per year, so that's an alarming rate at this point.”
Rathbun reported that there had already been 59 total traffic-related deaths in Rhode Island this year, and that 14 of those involved pedestrians. In Warwick, Rathbun said that there had been four accidents involving motor vehicles hitting pedestrians this year, three of which wound up being fatal. Two such events just occurred back-to-back on Sept. 22 and Sept. 23, one of which was fatal.
On Thursday, an undercover officer donned a bright green shirt and walked back and forth in the crosswalk at the corner of Main Avenue and Morse Street – the same intersection where a young man was killed by a collision in May.
If a motorist showed aggression towards the officer and sped up to try to prevent the officer from crossing, or refused to slow down, a team of officers ahead of the crosswalk kicked into gear and immediately pulled the perpetrator over. The driver would then be checked for any driving violations, such as speeding or distracted driving, and then send on their way with a warning and, hopefully, a better perspective on safe driving.
“Because today is a warning or education day, [officers will] have a discussion with them of what they observed specifically,” Rathbun said of what happens after someone is pulled over. “They'll find out what was the reason. Any time we do a car stop that's part of what we're looking for. We're trying to convey the message and remind them that this is your statutory obligation. You have to yield to pedestrians inside a cross walk.”
One of the very first cars that encountered the officer on Thursday failed to stop and passed within inches of the officer. Soon after, another did the same and was promptly pulled over by Sgt. John Kelly, who heads the Traffic Division for Warwick Police.
“She said she was going to the gym,” Kelly said after issuing her a warning and a lesson on pedestrian safety statutes. “That’s it.”
Over the course of just a couple of hours, the Warwick Police issued 25 total warnings for failure to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk and six citations for various infractions, including speeding. Major Rathbun said it was unfortunately not uncommon to get such a high volume of statutory infractions in such a short a window.
“Unfortunately no [it’s not uncommon], and that's why we saw the need last year to develop this program,” he said. “It's not a specific problem to Warwick, it's not a specific problem to the state of Rhode Island…Today's efforts, as you can see, require us to keep doing this and we will continue to keep doing this moving forward.”
The education campaign is not just for motorists, but also the pedestrians who enter crosswalks as well.
“For the pedestrians themselves, we want to remind them to avoid distractions,” Rathbun said. “We've had incidents where pedestrians are texting, using their cell phones or looking down as they're crossing the roadway. They need to try to make eye contact with the operator. The assumption that a motorist sees them at night is obviously a little bit more complicated.”
As for whether or not some areas of Warwick are more dangerous than others, Rathbun answered that most of the main roads in Warwick are state roads with at least four lanes of traffic. No matter where the crosswalk is located, Rathbun said it is on the motorists and pedestrians to exercise good judgment and respect for one another in order to prevent more tragic accidents from occurring.
“There's not a specific area in terms of one specific crosswalk,” he said. “We're dealing with traffic congestion and increased capabilities of vehicles that go faster than people realize. So it's a matter of everybody cooperating on the roadway, pedestrians being aware of what's going on and not just assuming that everybody sees what they're doing and motorists being aware of what's going on and giving that right of way to them.”
The Walk Wise Warwick Program is made possible with grant funding from the Department of Transportation’s Office of Highway Safety. The Warwick Police Traffic Unit “will be conducting many more enforcement actions related to pedestrian safety in the following months,” according to a release following the exercise.