Watch your step
• City official joins police for stroll across the street at monthly crosswalk stings
Nobody in Portland stops traffic like Sharon White.
Dressed in a bright red jacket, White spent an hour and a half Wednesday afternoon crossing Southeast 122nd Avenue, back and forth in the crosswalk where 122nd meets Southeast Main Street.
Each time she did, cars stopped to let her pass, some smoothly, some slamming to a halt with drivers and passengers whiplashing in their seats. A few didn't stop at all. And boy, were they sorry.
White, the Portland Office of Transportation traffic safety program specialist, was serving her once-a-month duty as crosswalk decoy, taking a step or two into the street so that Portland police officers, parked nearby, could spot drivers who fail to yield the pedestrian right of way.
The officers' job was to take off after offending motorists and bicyclists and, most of the time, give them a traffic citation.
The cost of not yielding a crosswalk? That's $242, or, in some cases, a choice between the fine and a $25 two-hour evening at Sharing the Road safety class.
Erica Palmer, 25, was on her way to a job fair when she became one of the first drivers cited in Wednesday's operation. White, who gives drivers every opportunity to make good, stood by the side of 122nd for at least 10 seconds before slowly starting to cross with a no-nonsense, authoritative walk that fairly shouted, 'Here I come.'
Palmer, a lane over, sped by, unaware that state law says drivers must yield two lanes - the lane of traffic into which White had stepped and the next one over. That next one over was Palmer's.
Palmer was given her citation, with a choice between the fine and the traffic safety class. As the officer pulled away she was more dazed than upset.
'I had no time to slow down,' she said. 'I think it's dangerous, right on a four-lane highway, to walk across this street.'
A 2003 state law toughened rules regarding crosswalks, requiring drivers not only to yield to pedestrians, but to stop and stay stopped until pedestrians crossed the car's lane and the next one. But according to transportation office spokeswoman Cheryl Kuck, the crosswalk operations - originally called pedestrian stings - were begun in the 1990s.
Kuck said that in city surveys Portland residents rank pedestrian safety as one of their top three civic concerns, and the crosswalk operations, at intersections that have been the subjects of complaints, are a response to those concerns.
Palmer acknowledged she might not know all the traffic laws in Oregon, given how she recently moved here from Boulder City, Nev. But she thinks pedestrians should cross at stoplights on streets as fast as 122nd, not at street crosswalks without stoplights, like the one where she was cited.
Bikers are ticketed, too
White and police officers have been holding these crosswalk enforcement actions nearly once a month since August 2005. She's open to suggestions as to where she should hold them in the future, though she said her request list already is about 50 crosswalks long.
In fact, White said city commissioners Sam Adams and Randy Leonard requested she take a look at the crosswalk at Southwest Fourth Avenue and College Street earlier this year.
White conducted operations there Jan. 23 and again Feb. 27. The first operation resulted in 36 citations to drivers for failing to stop for pedestrians. The February sting, or, operation, netted 23 citations.
That's progress, in White's view. 'The purpose isn't to generate tickets; it's to generate awareness,' she said.
An August 2006 crosswalk operation downtown at Southwest 10th Avenue and Main Street resulted in 48 citations, the highest one-day total since the crosswalk actions started in 2005, though not all were given to drivers: Between them, pedestrians and bicyclists were given nearly a third of the citations for a variety of crossing and riding offenses.
The quietest crosswalk operation took place in February 2006 at Southwest Sam Jackson Park Road, where only one citation was handed out over the course of about 40 minutes. Oregon Health and Science University administrators had asked for the operation, but it took place on a wet and icy day in February when everybody was driving slowly and carefully, according to White.
In contrast, an operation at Northeast Killingsworth Street and 30th Avenue yielded 41 citations, with two drivers taken into custody. They were stopped for crosswalk violations and turned out to have warrants out for their arrests.
White said she has come close to getting hit only once during a crosswalk operation, and that wasn't on a high-speed road like 122nd Avenue. It happened in Northwest Portland, at 23rd Avenue and Pettygrove Street. White said she thought she had made eye contact with a driver talking on a cell phone, but apparently not.
'I could have sworn she saw me,' White said of her close encounter. White said she yelled 'stop' at the last second and the car came to a halt 5 feet from her. Most of the time, she said, she's careful enough that she doesn't feel in danger.
'In Northwest there seemed to be a whole lot of people talking on their cell phones,' White said.
One walker turned vigilante
White and her police detail have their fans and their detractors. Both were evident Wednesday.
In fact, there was a cheering section at the operation. Casey Bannister lives with her three daughters in a house right next to the crosswalk on 122nd Avenue, and she said she has twice almost been hit by cars while trying to cross the street.
Bannister said she watches fearfully from an upstairs window every time her 15-year-old daughter crosses 122nd Avenue to get to the library on the other side of the street.
Wednesday, Bannister was watching the crosswalk for a different reason - she was cheering every time the police took off after another driver who hadn't given White the right of way.
'I'm glad somebody is concerned about that crosswalk,' Bannister said.
One young man, who spoke little English, took such a liking to White's work that he transformed himself from bystander to unofficial volunteer, crossing the street every now and then and watching police take off after drivers who failed to yield to him.
Altogether, 26 drivers were given citations at Wednesday's crosswalk event, not including one driver who didn't get cited for driving through the crosswalk but nevertheless parked his car and walked up to White and police officers to express his displeasure at the whole affair, including the way traffic on 122nd Avenue was slowed each time White crossed.
He shouted at both officers and White, at one point telling officer Mike Fahrer to '(expletive) off.' When he reached Fahrer in the middle of 122nd Avenue, Fahrer had a nonverbal response: He gave the man a ticket anyway. For jaywalking.
Know the rules before crossing
According to Sharon White, a large percentage of drivers and pedestrians don't know the rules that apply to crosswalks. So here they are:
• Every intersection is considered a crosswalk, White says, even those that are unmarked. Stoplights and stop signs take precedence. But if it's an intersection with neither of those and a pedestrian steps into the street to cross, he or she has the right of way.
• Bicyclists are required to follow the same rules of the road as motorists, which means they need to yield the right of way to pedestrians at crosswalks just as automobile drivers do. And if they're caught in one of the crosswalk enforcement operations, they do get ticketed.
• As for pedestrians, it isn't enough to stand on the sidewalk looking longingly at the other side of the street. Pedestrians need to show intent to cross, White says. And they do that by taking at least one step into the crosswalk. Also, pedestrians must provide drivers adequate distance to stop, White says.
White says that city statistics show that when pedestrians are hit by cars in crosswalks, more than half the time pedestrians, not drivers, are at fault.