MORGANTOWN— In less than a month this past February, separate vehicle-versus-pedestrian accidents killed 21-year-old WVU student Leah Samuel Berhanu and left 20-year-old WVU student Sara Queen critically injured.
The high-profile, back-to-back incidents prompted a coalition of stakeholders representing the public and various entities, including, among others, WVU, Morgantown, Monongalia County and the West Virginia Division of Highways (DOH) to come together to shine a light on pedestrian safety.
WVU State and Local Relations Specialist Ron Justice explained the work of that large, original group is about to be handed off to a smaller, more focused collection of experts who aim to take the stated concerns and suggestions and shape them into a plan for the area’s short, medium and long-term future.
“There are a number of things that weigh in like lighting, crosswalks, signs that can be looked at in the short term while we identify some of those larger, more time-consuming projects,” Justice said.
“The key in all this really has been the stakeholders coming together to take this on.”
The DOH has already stated its intent to outfit Patteson Drive with better lighting and other pedestrian-focused adjustments.
Similarly, Monongahela Boulevard, on which 32-year-old James Maloney Jr. was hit and killed while walking in 2014, will also get updated lighting and sidewalks between the Coliseum and the Star City Bridge.
Along with changes to come, Matthew Cross, president of the Morgantown Pedestrian Safety Board, wants residents to be aware of some changes that have already occurred in the downtown.
“Some of the signals have changed in the downtown district from exclusive to concurrent. It’s actually irregular — some of them are, some of them aren’t,” Cross said, explaining that pedestrians have a dedicated phase in an exclusive intersection but cross with the light in a concurrent intersection, meaning turning vehicles must yield to pedestrians.
The intersections of Pleasant and Spruce, and Fayette and High are examples of crossroads that have recently switched from exclusive to concurrent.
He explained that the DOH intends to puts signs on the various signal poles to let pedestrians know which is which.
“More of them are concurrent than exclusive. It used to be predominantly exclusive. We’ve gone with a concurrent system because it keeps everybody moving,” Cross said.
A video explaining the different intersections can be found on YouTube if you search “Morgantown Pedestrian Safety Board.”
Education, engineering and enforcement are the keys to a safe community, Cross said, noting the board intends to work with the WVU Student Government to disseminate information in the fall, and is looking at the creation of a pedestrian safety forum that would feature keynote speakers.
“I think we just want people to know, going downtown or wherever, that as a community, we need to start paying more attention,” Cross said.
Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston agreed, explaining that the opportunities for problems will likely increase as more and more vehicle and pedestrian corridors are shut off due to a list of planned DOH projects.
“I think we’re going to see larger traffic problems for the next several years while these changes are under way,” Preston said. “The amount of vehicles and the amount of pedestrians and the amount of bicycles is going to continue to rise. We continue to grow as an area, but the roads are going to be restricted. There’s just going to be less roadway while they’re doing these repairs.”
Preston said there are a number of infrastructure issues that need to be addressed, but he also pointed out that the incidents involving the two young women in February were the result of drivers breaking the law by running red lights.
Further, he explained the number of vehicle-versus-pedestrian accidents is not on the rise.
“Of course it’s very significant to the individuals involved, but numerically, we’re about the same,” Preston said.