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Editorial: Fix known hazard at Northampton crosswalk

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.

People who live in downtown Northampton made it clear last week the city must improve safety at a crosswalk behind the Academy of Music. And officials promptly agreed. The public now expects and deserves to see swift action to make drivers on New South Street more aware of pedestrians.

Even with optical-yellow road markings and a small sign atop the double yellow line, this crossing has been hazardous. One of the residents of the area who joined others last Tuesday in appealing to the city’s Transportation and Parking Commission for improvements says she was nearly hit in the crosswalk where a Hatfield doctor was struck on Halloween night. His injuries resulted in his death. A driver has been charged with negligent vehicular homicide.

While the death of Dr. Pallav K. Parakh brings the New South Street safety issue to the fore, the city has known for years this crosswalk is unsafe. Police records list 21 motor vehicle accidents at or near the crosswalk in the last decade, four of which involved pedestrians being hit. The others were fender-benders linked to quick stops when drivers spotted people crossing.

As was the case with Dr. Parakh, people on foot were most often injured by vehicles heading north toward the intersection with Main Street. Travel is routinely congested here, particularly at rush hour. The road sees an average of 16,000 vehicles a day.

This spot is far from the only place that cars and pedestrians, and bicyclists, come into conflict in Northampton. Our pages have carried stories about a string of accidents in the past year.

It is true that mid-block crosswalks are inherently dangerous. Vehicles have picked up speed since the last intersection. Stopped and parked cars can make it hard to see people on foot approaching crosswalks.

Still, more can and must be done. The city’s traffic engineer, Laura Hanson, says she already had the support of the mayor and public works director to see if the city can use state highway aid to install LED lights, akin to the system installed at the crosswalk in front of the Walter Salvo House on Conz Street when that road was recently rebuilt. At this crossing, pedestrians press buttons to activate a flashing light. More discussion on this is planned.

Transportation planners generally rely on long-term data, not tragedies, to pinpoint where road hazards lie. But they do need to take tragedies into account. After a Smith College student’s death at an Elm Street crosswalk, the city and school worked to safeguard pedestrians. Back in 1995, the City Council removed a parking space near the New South Street crosswalk after Steve Guillerm, a 13-year-old who’d been hit there, came to the panel to point out the hazard.

This page has carried many letters to the editor over the years about mistakes drivers and pedestrians make. We received one this week from a woman recalling the admonition from her youth to “stop, look and listen” at all crossings.

To be sure, people walking a city that promotes in-town living should look before they cross. Drivers familiar with area roads know where people are likely to emerge. But people traveling through, or visiting for the first time, have no idea about local customs. Pedestrians must assume cars won’t stop.

Last Tuesday, Ward 4 City Councilor Pamela C. Schwartz joined a dozen residents in urging the city to make the New South Street crosswalk safer. Schwartz said email messages have been flying on the issue and she brought examples of 50 of them to share with the commission.

Schwartz said the messages showed the depth and intensity of public concern. We agree. The concern is real and the need for improvements is urgent. If the city can’t tap state aid for the work, it should find money another way and reduce dangers for people traversing the heart of downtown.

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