The road to safety:
A closer look
at Fourth Street
Photo Illustration by | Maddy Emerson
NOTE: This piece was published in Vol. 99 Issue 1 of The Booster Redux on Friday, Sept. 1, 2017. Click here to view the PDF.
With his backpack strapped over his shoulder and his flute case clutched in his hands, senior Gabriel Norton was preparing to cross the crosswalk adjacent to the PHS tennis courts, on his usual way home after school. He had waited for cars to clear and felt safe.
Turns out, he was not as safe as he had thought.
A few seconds after Norton started crossing, he was struck by a vehicle. According to the Pittsburg Police Department’s (PPD) accident report, the driver slammed on his brakes when the truck beside him suddenly halted. But when the driver saw Norton in the crosswalk, he could not stop in time to avoid hitting him.
“I was in the air for a bit and then I landed on the ground,” Norton said. “It was hard for me to move. I closed my eyes for a bit and, a little while after I opened them up, I thought I was dreaming. When I woke up and I was still on the ground, I could remember what happened.”
Norton sustained a dislocated collarbone, body lacerations and broken nails. After a short stay in Via Christi Hospital and time at home recuperating, he returned to school in an arm sling. He replaced his one-strap backpack with a rolling suitcase. After three years in marching band, he left his flute at home because he could no longer perform.
“I had a surgery where [the doctors] put some metal plates and screws right here,” Norton said, pointing to his head. “They want me to stay in my sling for a while.”
Nowhere in the PPD’s accident report does it say the student driver was not paying attention when he hit Norton. According to the report, the vehicle in the left lane obstructed the driver’s view.
Pittsburg’s city manager Daron Hall, however, contradicted the report, saying the student driver was distracted. He said inattention is PHS’s main road problem.
“That kid got hit in a crosswalk. There was a crosswalk and the driver blew it. It could have been so much worse,” Hall said. “Everybody needs to just chill out when they’re driving around schools, supermarkets or wherever people are.”
PHS is on Fourth Street, which is a 40 mph four-lane road west of Free Kings Highway owned by the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT). The accident instigated discussions regarding road safety at PHS among district officials, the City of Pittsburg and KDOT.
SCHOOL SPEED ZONE
Norton said his daily walks home showed him the dangers of Fourth Street’s 40 mph speed limit. The speed limit, which makes it difficult for drivers to see or stop for pedestrians, was the cause of his accident, he says. The driver was following the speed limit, the accident report shows.
“At that [crosswalk] where kids are walking up to cross, the speed limit is kind of high,” Norton said. “I think it should be lower around that area.”
Norton’s idea of reducing the speed limit is not new to KDOT. A gap study measures the amount of time for a pedestrian to cross the street. KDOT considers 60 gaps in an hour to be sufficient, according to state traffic engineer Brian Gower. On Oct. 29, 2015, KDOT conducted a gap study on Fourth Street, which found an insufficient number of an averaged 20 adequate street-crossing gaps per hour. The survey took place between 8 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 4 p.m.
KDOT would support a school speed zone of no less than 25 mph on Fourth Street, the traffic investigation report shows.
Superintendent Destry Brown said the school district shares KDOT’s sentiments and would like a school speed zone. However, the city would be responsible for implementation, maintenance and costs.
The city is not convinced that a school speed zone would be the best option, says Pittsburg’s public works director Cameron Alden. A school speed zone would solve for one aspect of traffic safety while negatively impacting others, he says.
“It can create an artificial sense of security, kind of like children and signs,” Alden said. “You can put those signs up and now someone thinks, ‘Hey, it’s okay for me to play in the street and I don’t have to worry about being safe.’”
Hall said the speed zone would decrease space in between vehicles and require a flag person to direct traffic. He said it would hinder traffic.
“The safest thing would be to make the speed limit five mph and everybody would just have to crawl out of school, but the reality is you just can’t slow everything down to a crawl,” Hall said. “How safe can we be and not just stall the entire town?”
Pittsburg police officer Matthew Peters, however, said the city should implement a school speed zone for PHS. Most high schools have a 20 mph speed limit, he says.
“There would be complaints from people that are in a hurry in the mornings, but you have to put the safety of the students and the other pedestrians above the inconvenience for somebody that doesn’t leave in time to go to work,” Peters said. “I don’t know what other complaints people would have other than they have to slow down and pay attention to the people walking.”
On Oct. 16, four weeks after Norton’s accident, Hall, Alden, Brown and three state traffic engineers met to discuss a possible school speed zone and other traffic measures. This was the first time Brown had spoken with state traffic engineers or seen KDOT’s 2014 and 2017 traffic studies of Fourth Street.
But Brown said when he attends meetings like these, he does more listening than speaking.
“[The city] always asks me, ‘Well, what do you think we should do?’” Brown said. “[I say] ‘I’m here to have you tell me. You guys are the traffic people.”
The intersection at Fourth Street and Free Kings Highway currently lacks a traffic signal.
At the time of KDOT’s 2014 intersection safety study, 12 accidents occurred at the intersection in two years. According to the crash analyses, 10 of the crashes resulted in property damage, one involved injury and another involved a fatality. The intersection’s crash rate is higher than the statewide average of 10 crashes per 10-million entering vehicles.
PHS school resource officer and former state highway trooper Dave Petrey said a traffic light would be safer than the intersection’s current two-way stop. Traffic lights interrupt heavy traffic, permitting pedestrians to cross, according to KDOT’s official website.
“It would get our students back on Fourth Street safely,” Petrey said.
Alden said the city has not installed a traffic signal because the intersection does not meet any of the nine warrants from the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). If no warrants are met, KDOT will not allow the city to install a traffic signal.
“This is a case where the city would like to see a traffic signal,” Alden said. “If one of the warrants could be met, the city would move forward with trying to get a traffic signal put in there.”
KDOT’s 2017 traffic study recommended that the city conduct a study to evaluate the effectiveness of a single-lane roundabout, where yield signs and markings would direct drivers. Roundabouts cause minimal delay in traffic, the study shows. Roundabouts have been shown to reduce fatal and injury accidents as much as 75 percent, KDOT’s website shows.
The city has conducted no such study and doubts the effectiveness of a roundabout.
“Roundabouts are extremely expensive unless you just have a ton of land and they’re out in a very rural area,” Hall said. “[They] take up a lot of space and they also slow down traffic.”
FLASHING CROSSWALK LIGHTS
On Oct. 6 — 11 days after Norton’s accident — the city installed two rectangular rapid flashing beacons (RRFB) on the crosswalk adjacent to PHS’s entrance.
“The signal was already ordered and going in, so the accident didn’t create a situation where we went out and put a signal [RRFB] in,” Hall said. “It was coming out of Florida and was held up by [Hurricane Irma] or it would have been in by then anyway.”
According to the official website of Carmanah, the RRFB producer, pedestrian-activated buttons activate rapid flashing yellow lights, which improve yielding rates.
“The flashing light seems to be what people need nowadays to get their attention,’” Hall said.
However, Brown disagrees, doubting that drivers will yield.
“KDOT thinks people ignore [RRFBs]. People drive and they blow through them all the time,” Brown said. “I don’t think people understand them or pay any attention to them anymore.”
Brown said he has voiced his concerns to the city, but the city maintains that flashing lights are an effective way to improve traffic safety.
“The traffic thing is different than going to talk to [the city] about snow removal,” Brown said.
The school district hired a contractor to install a sidewalk from Fourth Street to PHS’s driveway, according to Brown. It is now ready for pedestrians.
At this time, no decision has been made to take any further action in addition to the flashing lights.