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Action urged for Northampton crosswalk after fatal accident

Derek J. Graves of Chesterfield was sentenced to 30 days in jail after pleading guilty to a charge of negligent operation of a motor vehicle — reduced from the original charge of motor vehicle homicide — in connection with the death of Pallav Parakh at this crosswalk Oct. 31, 2012.

Derek J. Graves of Chesterfield was sentenced to 30 days in jail after pleading guilty to a charge of negligent operation of a motor vehicle — reduced from the original charge of motor vehicle homicide — in connection with the death of Pallav Parakh at this crosswalk Oct. 31, 2012. Purchase photo reprints »

So when a Hatfield doctor who was struck there died last week of his injuries, the Northampton resident knew she had to speak out for immediate improvements to the crosswalk.

“I was almost killed in this crosswalk two years ago,” Tracy told the Transportation and Parking Commission on Tuesday. “I was completely shaken. The driver was completely shaken.”

Tracy joined more than a dozen residents in urging the commission to take immediate action to address pedestrian safety at the mid-block crosswalk, which serves as the west entrance to Pulaski Park.

Their pleas come nearly three weeks after Pallav K. Parakh, 35, was struck by a truck while using the crosswalk shortly before 5 p.m. on Halloween. Parakh died last week.

“This is an impassioned plea to improve the visibility of that crosswalk,” said Susan Gerstle, the president of the board of trustees at Old School Commons, a condo complex at 35 South St.

Parakh’s death has been the subject of much email traffic among people who live in the area. Ward 4 City Councilor Pamela C. Schwartz presented the commission with comments from more than 50 constituents.

“It’s really a way to bring home to you the intensity and the depth of the concern and, really, the bottled-up nature of this particular problem that this tragedy has uncorked,” Schwartz said.

She called for an immediate remedy to make the crosswalk safer, even if that solution will be replaced by something more permanent later.

“It is an urgent, ongoing problem and we just had somebody die because of it,” Schwartz said.

The commission agreed, with Chairman and Ward 7 City Councilor Eugene A. Tacy calling the crosswalk a top priority.

“I really understand that something needs to be done,” Tacy said. “I hope everybody realizes we are right on this.”

The commission did not make any decisions Tuesday, and decided against a proposal to create a special task force to address the issue after hearing that Mayor David J. Narkewicz and other key officials are already discussing an immediate improvement.

Laura Hanson, the city’s traffic engineer, said she has the support of Narkewicz and Department of Public Works Director Ned Huntley to explore using state Chapter 90 money to install a flashing set of LED crosswalk lights similar to those in place on Conz Street.

Hanson said other ideas are also on the table and that more discussion is scheduled for next week.

“I just want to reassure you that . . . it’s definitely moved to the top,” Hanson told the residents.

The crosswalk is not far from the intersection of New South and Main streets, where there are several crosswalks. During busy times, traffic often backs up on New South Street in both directions. Hanson said some 16,000 vehicles use the road every day.

There have been 21 motor vehicle accidents at the crosswalk since January 2002, four of which involved a pedestrian, Police Chief Russell P. Sienkiewicz said. In addition to Parakh, one woman was clipped by a mirror. The other accidents involved a teenager and a young child who were struck after darting across the crosswalk. They suffered minor injuries.

All of the accidents involving pedestrians occurred when motorists were heading north on New South Street toward downtown, Sienkiewicz said. Another 16 accidents were rear-end collisions in both directions caused by cars abruptly stopping for pedestrians in the crosswalk.

While he agrees something must be done, Sienkiewicz cautioned that decisions should be made in a deliberate fashion. He also said mid-block crosswalks don’t work.

“They create the expectation of safety for pedestrians,” he said.

The crosswalk currently has pedestrian crossing signs on both sides of the street, as well as a third sign mounted on a cone in the middle of the crosswalk.

Most agree the problem involves traffic heading north toward Main Street, when the road gets wider and becomes two lanes. Residents said cars headed into downtown “zoom” into the right lane just before the crosswalk, then have trouble reacting if someone is legally crossing.

Crosswalk improvements were not included in a nearby project completed this fall designed to make a 1.2-mile stretch of South Street safer. Transportation consultants currently studying issues at four other downtown streets will also examine the crosswalk on New South Street and make recommendations for measures that might help improve safety.

Residents welcomed that long-term solution, but also stressed a temporary fix is in order. Many came armed with suggestions on how to improve safety, from installing LED lights to narrowing the road by constructing curb cuts, extending the sidewalk, or adding on-street parking on the north side.

“There is no way to see someone in the crosswalk without big lights and banners flashing,” Gerstle said.

Others, like Donna Webster of Old School Commons, lobbied for eliminating the crosswalk entirely.

“We should take it out,” Webster said. “I feel that we don’t really need it.”

Maddy Neely said the crosswalk has been a source of concern for several years. Several hours before Parakh was hit in the crosswalk, Neely said, she felt “very disturbed” as she watched a mother and her sons almost get hit as they scattered across the sidewalk.

When she went out a few hours later, Neely knew something bad had happened when she saw all of the emergency vehicles who responded to Parakh’s accident.

“To see all of this ... it was just incredibly alarming,” Neely said.

Of COURSE that crosswalk is unnecessary! It never should have been put there in the first place, and has been a hazard since day one. It's amazing that this is the first fatality. Northampton city officials bear some responsibility here for failing to take action sooner.

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