City offers orange flags to keep pedestrians safe

Roper Hospital employees Sherrel Smith and and Robert Rife carry flags as they cross Calhoun Street near Courtenay Street on Wednesday. The flags are a new effort by the City of Charleston and Roper Hospital to improve pedestrian safety at that intersecti

Charleston police lieutenant credited with idea

In an unusual bid to improve traffic safety, pedestrians in Charleston are being urged to carry bright orange flags when they cross Calhoun Street at Courtenay Drive near Roper Hospital.

Hospital employee JoAnn McDowell was struck by a car at that intersection a dozen years ago and was among the first to cross while carrying one of the new 18-inch-square flags Wednesday.

"I had to have surgery, and I was out of work for 12 weeks," she said. "I hope (the flag idea) works."

While they run the risk of making a pedestrian look like a construction worker directing traffic, or maybe a matador, the flags also can get motorists' attention.

While new to Charleston, pedestrian flags have been popping up around the country since the 1990s. They are seen as an easy way to improve safety.

City Department of Transportation Director Hernan Pena credited police Lt. Chip Searson with the flag idea.

"I saw this in Salt Lake City and thought it was a simple, inexpensive idea that we could try in Charleston," Searson said.

The program in Salt Lake City has been running for seven years and is used at nearly 200 intersections. The city and school district pay for about half the intersections; businesses and neighborhood groups maintain the rest.

Dan Bergenthal of the Salt Lake City Transportation Division said the flags are particularly popular near schools, where children carry them while crossing the street.

The flags cost about $2 each.

Salt Lake City has had to replace between 15,000 and 20,000 of them since 2000.

"We don't know where they went," said Bergenthal, who added: "It's not as bad as it used to be."

While Charleston credits Salt Lake City with the idea, it turns out Salt Lake City got the flag idea from Ketchum, Idaho, a resort town with about 3,300 permanent residents near Sun Valley.

"I've been here for eight years, it was implemented before I started, and, yes, it does work," said Brian Christiansen, Ketchum's street superintendent.

Ketchum got the flag idea from the city of Kirkland, Wash., which got the idea from a resident who saw a similar program while vacationing in Japan.

Kirkland's PedFlag program was launched in 1995 after two pedestrian accidents the prior year, one of which involved a child serving as a school crossing guard.

Vaughn Sutton, director of security at Roper Hospital, said there have been a number of accidents at Calhoun and Courtenay, all of them involving people being struck by turning vehicles.

He hopes the flags could be one solution.

"It's one of those things where you say, 'Gosh, why didn't anyone think of that?' " Sutton said.

Roper has agreed to maintain and restock the flags in what will be Charleston's first experiment with pedestrian flags.

The flags are part of a larger pedestrian safety effort that began in April and included new crosswalk signals that count down the time remaining to cross safely.

The city was unable to provide statistics Wednesday about pedestrian accidents near the hospital. Pena said he's confident that the intersection is properly designed and that the 17 seconds pedestrians are given to cross Calhoun Street is adequate.

The problem, he said, has been "the disregard of some drivers for the pedestrians."