Chapel Hill girls injured in wreck highlight safety concerns

Update: The names of the victims of Friday’s wreckage, which appeared in an earlier version of this story, have been withdrawn at the request of one of the parents.

An accident that sent two Chapel Hill college students to hospital on New Years Eve has renewed calls for the city to do something about speeding tickets and to keep pedestrians safe.

The driver involved in the crash has been charged, Chapel Hill police said on Wednesday evening, just two days before a planned protest march. Organizers are asking residents to bring signs to the crosswalk in front of Phillips Middle School on Estes Drive at 5 p.m. Friday. The group plans to walk to East Franklin Street and vice versa.

The seventh and eighth graders were in the crosswalk in the middle of the block, returning home around 5:30 p.m. Friday when they were hit, neighbors and school officials said.

The two girls were taken to hospital, and police said in a statement on Wednesday that the 13-year-old remained at UNC hospital with life-threatening injuries. The 14-year-old was released from the hospital and is recovering from serious injuries, they said.

Police investigation found driver Norma Martin, 69, of Durham, who was heading east towards Franklin Street, did not stop for the girls, who were in the crosswalk marked, according to the press release. Other drivers heading west towards Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard pulled over for the girls, police said.

Martin was accused on Wednesday of failing to yield the right of way to pedestrians in a clearly marked crosswalk or a regular crosswalk, the statement said.

The News & Observer contacted the girls’ parents on Wednesday.

Lynn Zwack, a teacher at Estes Hills Elementary School, said she was in the hospital and was not available to comment on her daughter or her friend.

“We are focusing on our daughter right now and would greatly appreciate the thoughts and prayers,” Zwack said in a text message.

Pro Mayor Tem Karen Stegman responded to that sentiment at the opening of Wednesday’s council meeting with a statement on the wreckage. The city is looking to make the area safer until improvements for pedestrians and bicycles begin in the spring, she said.

“We want to extend our thoughts and prayers to the two middle school students who were seriously injured on New Years Eve,” Stegman said. “Their families and friends are on our minds and have been ever since. We are devastated that this has happened, and we know it has been a traumatic impact on our community. “

New Years Tragedy

Anne Goldstein, Zwack’s neighbor who lives near the school, posted updates to neighbors this week in emails and on social media. It is important to make people understand that they have to give way to pedestrians, she said, and the city can do something about it.

“They just want to make sure it’s really clear that the girls were using the crosswalk correctly, that they know how to cross the street, that they obeyed the traffic rules, that they were called home. before it gets dark, ”she said. told the N&O in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

Goldstein said she was the first person to arrive at the scene, describing in a shaky voice how she heard the crash while doing the laundry and rushed to help.

The girls wore matching Converse tennis shoes, she said, and one of them was lying on the sidewalk next to a New Years Eve hat.

Earlier, her 11-year-old son had seen the girls play kazoo, Goldstein said in an email to the town on Friday night.

As she blocked the scene of her son, who ran behind bringing a phone for her to call 911, Goldstein said she saw the driver pull over and get out of his car. The woman was cooperative, she said.

Rescuers took the two girls to hospital.

Phillips Middle principal temp Tiffany Cheshire informed students and families of the crash in a letter on Saturday. The letter, which named the girls, asked families to “keep the students and their families in your thoughts.”

The school will have counselors and other supports to help staff and students when they return from vacation, she said.

Phillips Middle Pedestrian Crossing.jpg
Two students from Phillips Middle School were seriously injured on Friday, December 31, 2021, as they crossed the street at this crosswalk on Estes Drive in Chapel Hill. Residents have been complaining about security risks for years. Contributed Google Street View

Speed ​​up, ignore crosswalks

Concerns about speeding tickets and drivers not yielding to pedestrians in the crosswalk are not new, and several residents have emailed the mayor and city council since hearing about the l ‘accident.

Estes Drive is one of the few east-west corridors between Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and traffic is almost always constant, backing up almost half a mile in both directions in the morning and evening. School traffic, which congregates on Estes Drive, adds to the congestion and frustration.

Now, with construction about to begin on the Aura Chapel Hill project at the intersection of Estes-Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and a proposed townhouse development next door, concerns are growing.

This fall, Goldstein placed brightly colored flag buckets on both sides of the street, so children and others trying to cross could wave a flag to attract the attention of drivers. It’s a strategy her former hometown of Kirkland, Wash., Used to improve pedestrian safety, she said, and suggested to Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger during a phone call this week.

A larger obstacle, such as a barrel, would also be good to place in the crosswalk, she said.

“I cross over there four times a day and see children dropped off from the bus at the bus stop right there, unable to cross in the morning,” she said. “They stay there for ages, and a lot of times I run and take a flag, and help them cross the street.”

The city identified the crosswalk as a “critical priority” in planning documents for 2009 and again in 2013.

More than $ 2.3 million in federal and local money has been set aside for construction, and in 2016, council approved the Estes Drive bicycle and pedestrian connectivity project. Construction was due to begin in 2018, when the city installed a “yield to pedestrians” sign and temporarily increased police patrols after receiving a number of complaints.

But the project languished, in large part because of the multi-year federal funding process, which required several agencies to review and approve the work, city spokesman Ran Northam said. The North Carolina Department of Transportation gave final clearance last spring, he said, and the city has started to prepare again for 18 months of detours and construction.

But in November there was another delay, pending the relocation of gas lines. The power company was reluctant to do so with the winter shutdown, chief executive Maurice Jones told the council, but working around the gas line could create more challenges and add around $ 250,000 in additional costs to the city.

The start of the project is now scheduled for spring.

More immediate improvements

This week, school officials in the city of Chapel Hill-Carrboro contacted police and the city about more immediate measures that could improve safety at the crossing, spokesman Andy Jenks said. The city’s cycling and pedestrian team are also working with NCDOT to review additional safety measures, Northam said.

The police department also conducts regular pedestrian speed and safety checks when problems are reported. Estes Drive will receive more attention this month, according to a city press release issued Wednesday about three planned speed control operations in addition to regular patrols.

Police records obtained by The N&O show that only two other accidents involving a pedestrian have been reported on this stretch of road since 2018. Drivers were cited in 2018 and 2019 for not slowing down to avoid an accident; the pedestrians were not seriously injured.

Records also show that from 2018 to 2021, police convicted 45 people on this stretch of Estes Drive – 24 for speeding.

It’s not enough, residents said in interviews and in social media posts. Goldstein said she went door-to-door over the weekend to encourage neighbors to bring their concerns to Hemminger and the council.

Friday’s crash was the result of too long a delay in needed safety improvements, she and others said.

Katharine Kollins, another protest organizer who lives near the school, said she had emailed the city for almost six years. She sees the problems every day taking her children to school, she told the N&O by phone on Tuesday.

Sometimes they cross the street from the crosswalk, where visibility is better, Kollins said. On a few occasions, while waiting at the crosswalk, drivers leaving the school parking lot who did not see her on the right when trying to turn left hit her, she said.

Fortunately, they never went fast enough to cause injury.

The city cannot continue to delay this, ”Kollins said. “I cycle Estes every week out of town, and I’m petrified the whole time I’m on the road. There is nowhere to go. There is no alternative for a cyclist.

Hemminger did not respond to The N&O call on Wednesday for comment.

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This story was originally published 5 January 2022 5:00 p.m.

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Tammy Grubb has written about politics, people, and government in Orange County since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.

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