One False Move

Why did Susie Stephens, a pedestrian-traffic expert, get hit by a bus downtown?

Foster notes the lack of an agency or person in the city or county responsible for pedestrian safety full-time, even though federal dollars are available for such programs. And other cities have taken positive action. "In Chicago," he says, "12 full-time bike and pedestrian coordinators look at signal lights, crossing times, whether it makes sense to have a walk signal at the same time as a green light for vehicles. They study accident data and police reports to find out if there are patterns and locations that are particularly dangerous."

Initially there was talk of charging the bus driver with involuntary manslaughter. Postaccident drug and alcohol tests proved negative; Assistant Circuit Attorney Robert Craddick says no charges have been filed in the case and he doesn't expect them to be. Wamble was issued a summons for failing to yield to a pedestrian. He has a date in traffic court later this month; a guilty plea will get him a fine of as much as $500, up to 90 days in jail or both. Meanwhile, he's still driving for Vandalia Bus Lines.

Martin Pion and Mike Murray, both members of the Bicycle Federation, have taken a keen interest in the Stephens case. Within days of the accident, they went to the scene with a videocamera and tape measure and did their own investigation. After careful study, Pion has put the facts of the case, with diagrams and photographs, on a Web site: home.swbell.net/mpion/conservion.html. He hopes the site will generate interest or sufficient outrage to aid in applying pressure on the circuit attorney to prosecute the bus driver.

"The policy of the circuit attorney's office," says Pion, 65, a bicycle-safety advocate, "is not to charge involuntary manslaughter if drugs or alcohol were not involved. I think it's unacceptable to let him off the hook just because he wasn't high on something. He wasn't paying attention -- should we just ignore that? It's as if we're saying killing someone through inattentive driving is OK; we'll just give him a small fine and carry on. One wants to see justice done in this case, especially given [Stephens'] high profile. But other than punish the driver, is there anything useful that might come from a tragedy like this -- a means of future prevention?"

The short-term solution, he suggests, is to "change the signalization on the lights so there's a phase in which pedestrians have an absolutely protected period while they are in the crosswalk." The long-term solution is not so cut-and-dried. "We need to grasp the nettle and make it safer and more comfortable for pedestrians to move around. That area near the riverfront is fairly shouting out for that kind of treatment. It's been talked about for years, but no action is ever taken. For example, they should not make it easy for people to hop in a bus and drive from the Adam's Mark to the convention center, just a few blocks away. They should make it easier for them to walk."

Deputy Commissioner Cox says the Street Department began replacing the old-style signals last summer but that the task soon came to a halt because there was to be another alteration to the signals -- replacing the old incandescent bulbs with a new, economical LED version. But because these new LED devices had not yet arrived, it was decided to cover the left-turn arrows until both jobs could be done at once. The LED bulbs are soon to arrive, and a new generation of traffic signals -- bulbs with greater luminosity and without the problematic green left-turn arrow -- will grace downtown streets.

Susie Stephens will never get to see them.

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