Post and Courier
July 23, 2014

Deadly Charleston intersection encourages risk-taking

Posted: 02/08/2014 10:00 p.m.
Updated: 02/09/2014 03:44 p.m.


By Doug Pardue

The Charleston intersection where two pedestrians suffered fatal injuries in traffic accidents 14 months apart is almost impossible to safely cross before the walk light turns red.

That's because pedestrians are not supposed to cross the entire eight lanes of the busy Crosstown expressway when walking with the pedestrian light at the Coming Street intersection, city officials say.

Pedestrians, however, have no way to know that because no signs at the crosswalk warn them to stop in the median island and wait about two minutes as Crosstown traffic speeds by until they get a second green walk light.

Federal regulations from 2009 require that such intersections have median-mounted pedestrian signals and warning signs alerting pedestrians to remain in the median between walk lights. The median at the intersection does have the pedestrian signals, but the crosswalk has no warning signs.

Hernan Pena, Charleston's Director of Traffic and Transportation, contends that the regulation applies only to intersections with "actuated" walk signals, such as those operated by a push button for pedestrians wanting to cross.

In a follow-up interview, he said those regulations don't apply to this crosswalk because the signals were installed in 2002, before the recent Crosstown drainage and beautification project, when none of those requirements were in place.

Nevertheless, Pena and Mayor Joe Riley said the city is conducting a safety evaluation of the intersection and likely will recommend that the state approve warning signs telling pedestrians to wait in the median before crossing the second section of lanes.

More than a dozen pedestrians who regularly use the crossing told The Post and Courier they had no clue they are supposed to wait in the median for a second green walk light. As a result, most said that when the walk light begins counting down the remaining seconds, they sprint to cross both north- and southbound lanes before the walk light turns red.

Many said they don't make it. Fortunately for them the green light for Crosstown traffic to resume is set with an 8-second delay.

Pena said the pedestrian signals on the nearly 200-foot-wide intersection are timed for people who are walking, not running.

Riley recently walked the intersection with Pena, and said he had plenty of time to safely cross to the median island and wait for a second green walk light to finish crossing the highway.

Still, Riley said, he's certain that the city will recommend adding caution signs and that they will be installed.

The city began its safety evaluation of the intersection "because of the unusual situation of the two fatalities" and should conclude it in a week or two, Pena said. It will then go to the state Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the Crosstown, officially known as the Septima P. Clark Parkway.

A mother's fight

Lynnette Ranz, whose 21-year-old daughter, Lindsey Ranz, died after being hit at the intersection last month, said a study isn't needed to know that something must be done before another person is killed or seriously injured.

Ranz, a registered nurse with Carolina Hospice, is pushing an online petition drive in the name of her dead daughter to pressure Charleston and highway officials to do what is necessary to make the intersection safe for pedestrians and bicyclists.

"Something has to be done at that intersection," she said. "The cars are just flying by and the light is not long enough for people to cross safely."

It's unknown if a longer crossing time or warning signs to cross only to the median would have saved the lives of the two College of Charleston students. But police say their accident investigations showed that both women entered the traffic lanes of the Crosstown when oncoming traffic had the right-of-way. Police did not ticket the drivers, saying the pedestrians were at fault.

Police reports say Ranz was out jogging about 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 13 and was running in place at the Coming Street intersection when the Crosstown traffic light turned from green to yellow and she darted into the crosswalk. She was hit almost immediately by a pickup truck that entered the intersection with the yellow light, the report states.

The other College of Charleston student killed was Hannah-Rose Elledge, 21, who was on a one-year visit from Nottingham University in England. She and a friend were hit by a Jeep Cherokee in the Crosstown walkway at Coming Street about 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 17, 2012. She was dragged under the Jeep for about 129 feet and died. Her friend suffered a leg injury.

People take chances

Adrienne O'Brien said regardless of whether the dead college students were at fault, something needs to be done. The 22-year-old College of Charleston senior psychology major from Spartanburg has lived a couple of blocks north of the Crosstown for about six months, and crosses it every school day.

She said she's able to get only halfway across the intersection to the grassy middle island before the light changes, and has watched as many others take off running to get to the other side.

The green walk light gives pedestrians 5 seconds before it starts a flashing caution, indicating the pedestrian has just 15 more seconds to get across. Walkers make it barely halfway across the first set of four lanes before the flashing caution light begins.

O'Brien said the limited cross time likely prompts some pedestrians to risk walking or running when the timed pedestrian signal light is about to turn red or is red.

She said she doesn't take chances crossing roads because she has seen many near accidents, especially on King Street, where cars and pedestrians engage in a dangerous dance as people bar hop. Asked why she doesn't cross the highway in the safety of the pedestrian bridge about two blocks away, O'Brien said she didn't know it was there, but it would take her pretty far out of her way.

At the corner of the Crosstown and Coming Street, just feet from where the fatalities occurred, flower memorials decorate a fence. One wilted bouquet holds a photo of Lindsey Ranz.

O'Brien stands just feet from the photo and says many vehicles on the Crosstown seem to be going a lot faster than the 35 mph limit. She stands back from the curb when she waits for the walk light because traffic seems so fast and dangerous.

Fast and furious

During a recent evening rush hour a Post and Courier reporter saw northbound vehicles on the Crosstown gunning their engines as they neared the Coming Street interchange where the highway converts into Interstate 26. Motorists routinely crossed Coming as the light turned from yellow to red.

John Lambert, 20, bikes across the busy intersection every day, and said the walk light is so short that "it gets real close" for him.

Leroy Grant, 69, doesn't risk it. He routinely bikes around the streets of upper Charleston, but pulls up and turns around at Coming Street and the Crosstown. "It's too dangerous," he said. The crossing walk light doesn't last long enough for him.

Robert Smith, 67, lives on Todd Street and said the Coming pedestrian crossing "is very dangerous. They need to lengthen the light. They need to add more time. This is not New York. Charleston is slow."

Local musician Johnny Delaware, 26, stood on the corner near where the College of Charleston students were hit. As he prepared to cross with his dog, he said he takes a risk every time he trots across the intersection because he'll run out of time if the dog does what dogs do and stops to take a sniff.

"Wish me luck," he said as he hurried across with his easily diverted pet. He ran out of time one second before reaching the other side.

Lynnette Ranz dabbed her eyes with a tear-soaked tissue and said she couldn't stop talking about the daughter she called "my heart" and her need to make the intersection safe for others.

In a state that ranked as the second-most dangerous per capita nationally for pedestrians in 2011, that may not be easy, but Ranz said she won't stop trying.

"Lindsey doesn't have a voice. I have to do this to make it right."