Dangerous roadways: Pedestrians killed, injured on Valley roads continues to climb, mirroring statewide trend

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 07-23-2023 8:55 AM

NORTHAMPTON — The number of motor vehicle accidents involving pedestrians and bicyclists has climbed across the commonwealth over the past three years, and the Pioneer Valley is no exception.

Across Hampshire and Franklin counties, there have been 213 crashes involving pedestrians from 2020-2022, six of which resulted in death, according to data from Massachusetts Department of Transportation. Crashes have risen slowly from 2020, when there were 55 total pedestrian and bicycle-related crashes, to 69 such crashes in 2022. Through the first seven months of 2023, there have been 26 crashes in the two counties as of July 19, the figures show.

Five of the six deaths in the two counties over the three-year span occurred in 2022, with the most recent in Greenfield last December when a 72-year-old died. The other three deaths took place in Amherst, Northampton and Easthampton, the latter of which killed two people in one crash.

Statewide, the numbers paint a grim picture. A recent MassDOT assessment on the safety of so-called vulnerable road users — those who use the roads but not in a motor vehicle, including pedestrians, bicyclists, roller bladers, and others — showed that 111 pedestrians died in crashes in 2022, a record for a single year. The previous high of 83 pedestrian deaths was recorded in 2012, according to MassDOT data. That 2022 figure follows record-lows in 2020.

When it comes to nonfatal serious injuries, the MassDOT report showed that there were 426 pedestrians hurt in crashes with vehicles in 2022. Of all the pedestrian and bicycle-related crashes that occurred in Hampshire and Franklin counties last year, 54 resulted in nonfatal injuries, about 12% of the total.

The numbers may actually be worse, said Tracy Zafian, who chairs the Amherst Transportation Committee and also serves as a research fellow at the UMass Transportation Center. Zafian notes that the MassDOT data may not be fully complete, meaning the numbers for Hampshire and Franklin counties could be even higher.

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For example, one crash in 2023 in Northampton, not yet reflected in state data, is the March death of a Florence teenager in Hatfield.

“Certain communities continue to report crashes later on, and there can be big delays,” Zafian said. “For example, they may have indicated initially in the crash it was a serious injury, but then the person dies from the injuries and they don’t necessarily update it right away.”

Zafian said the higher number of fatalities could be traced to a variety of factors, such as distracted drivers, larger vehicles, and a change in driving habits since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“During COVID, there were fewer people on the roads, and people were driving faster,” she said. “Some of those trends could still be a factor. 

Individual communities

Within Hampshire and Franklin counties, Northampton had the most crashes involving vulnerable road users since 2020, with 56. It was followed by Amherst with 40, Greenfield with 33, Easthampton with 25, and Hadley with 13 crashes.

According to MassDOT State Safety Engineer Bonnie Polin, some of the data uncovered in the assessment surprised her, including the number of accidents happening close to schools. Statewide, 41% of fatal and serious injury bicycle crashes and 44% of pedestrian and skater crashes happened within 2,000 feet of schools.

Many of the crashes that occurred around the Pioneer Valley over the last three years also seem to fit the pattern. Several clusters of pedestrian- and bicycle-related crashes that occurred near schools were identified in Franklin and Hampshire counties.

For example, three of the five such crashes in Belchertown over the last three years were in the vicinity of the town’s schools. All four accidents that occurred in Deerfield during that time occurred near Deerfield Elementary School.

In Easthampton, a cluster of nine crashes over the last three years occurred in the same area as three of the city’s schools, including the Williston Northampton School and Center School. In Greenfield, many reported crashes occurred along Federal Street, which schools in the district are located on or nearby, such as Greenfield Middle School and Greenfield High School.

A fatal injury crash in 2021 in Northampton claimed the life of Charlie Braun, who was killed riding his bicycle in front of Northampton High School in October of that year.

In Amherst, many of the pedestrian and bicycle-involved crashes occurred along North Pleasant Street, which cuts through the UMass Amherst campus. Zafian said that since 2010, there had been 32 crashes in Amherst that ended in either fatalities or serious injury to vulnerable road users.

“That whole corridor where UMass is has a lot of pedestrian traffic,” Zafian said. “UMass has done a lot of safety improvements, but there could be further improvements done.”

MassDOT helps run a “Safe Routes to School” program, which as of the 2022-2023 academic year works with 60% of schools across Massachusetts, including in Northampton, Amherst and Greenfield. Under that program, 79 infrastructure projects have been completed to help students walk or bike safely to school, and 21 signs and roadlines have been put in place or have been designed. The department is looking to enhance the program.

Former Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law in January that requires drivers to keep at least 4 feet of space between them and those along the side of the road, whether that be pedestrians, cyclists, maintenance workers or other drivers who pulled their vehicle to the side of the road.

The law was also intended to make it clear to motorists that they can cross the centerline, if safe to do so, if needed to pass a pedestrian or cyclists.

Over 4,000 signs with information about the 4-foot passage law were requested by municipalities, and will be delivered during the next few weeks to about a third of the cities and towns around the state.

In Northampton, the city is looking to revamp its Main Street with a proposed $19.1 million project that calls for, among other things, adding bike lanes in both directions to try to minimize the number of pedestrian and bicycle-related traffic incidents.

Additionally, the city is looking at adding a new traffic signal at the two intersections in front of Northampton High School, part of long-awaited improvements to an area where numerous crashes have occurred in recent years.

Stephanie Upson, the MassDOT project manager for Picture Main Street, said during a meeting discussing the project last April that Northampton’s downtown had 35 bicycle-related and 30 pedestrian-related crashes from 2011 to 2020, making it one of the top 5% clusters of accidents in those categories across the state. Of those, five accidents resulted in either serious injury or fatality.

Every state is required to prepare a vulnerable road user assessment under the new federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. MassDOT has been collecting and analyzing data, and will next focus on doing outreach and using this information to identify projects to improve road safety. The assessment will be updated again in 2027, alongside the Strategic Highway Safety Plan.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.

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