One False Move

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

When Ken Cox, St. Louis deputy traffic commissioner, came to the Street Department from the Missouri Department of Transportation six years ago, he looked around and saw some things that didn't make sense -- such as the green left-turn arrows on downtown traffic signals, a situation that had gone unchanged for 40 or 50 years.

"The problem that I saw with all those lefts downtown," he says, "is that a left-turn arrow comes up telling drivers they can turn left onto a one-way street, and at the same time a 'walk' comes up for pedestrians. You don't want those occurring at the same time. It's sending conflicting messages."

Early last summer, Cox issued an order to cover with heavy fabric all the left-turn signals downtown, a solution that left only the standard green-amber-red configuration. Cox says that to the best of his knowledge, all the left-turn signals downtown were "ragged out" within a week. As many as 100 left-turn signals were covered. But the left-turn signal at Chestnut and North Fourth was not covered on March 21, when Susie Stephens, a pedestrian- and bicycle-safety expert, was struck and killed by a bus at that intersection.

Jill Pearson
Bicyclist Martin Pion conducted his own investigation of the Stephens case.
Bicyclist Martin Pion conducted his own investigation of the Stephens case.

On that Thursday morning, Stephens had gone to Kinko's, located in the nearby Marriott Hotel, and was returning to the Adam's Mark. She came to the northwest corner of Chestnut and North Fourth streets. Given the walk signal, she proceeded eastward across North Fourth. She had the right of way; a "walk" signal indicated she could cross the street with confidence.

The police report estimates she had walked about 28 feet, just into the third lane, when she was struck from behind and thrown some nine feet onto the pavement; then she was dragged beneath the bus and crushed.

Strewn around Stephens' body were her photocopies. The dark splotch of her coffee marked the asphalt.

Charter-bus driver Michael Wamble, 46, of Swansea, Illinois, routinely conveyed guests from downtown hotels to the convention center and back. This day, he was going to the Adam's Mark. He told police he was driving east on Chestnut when he stopped for a red light at North Fourth. When the signal changed, he turned left onto North Fourth -- one way, running north -- and as he did so, he glimpsed the top of someone's head. But before he could stop, he hit that someone. He says he looked both ways before going into his turn. He didn't know where Stephens had come from; she just suddenly appeared.

Susie Stephens was no rickety old lady. At 36, she was an avid bicyclist around her home in Winthrop, Washington, near Spokane. She was a founding board member of the Thunderhead Alliance, a coalition of some 40 bicycle-advocacy organizations. A consultant to the National Center for Bicycling and Walking, she was in St. Louis working a transportation conference sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service.

Just how safe are the streets of downtown St. Louis when a nationally recognized expert on pedestrian safety can step off a curb and get creamed by a bus?

At that particular intersection, pedestrians have 35 seconds from green to amber to cross the four lanes -- about a 50-foot span -- of North Fourth. Thousands of people do it each day without incident. As a general rule, left-turning drivers are aware of pedestrians in the crosswalk and are required to yield to them -- as long as they can see them. The evidence suggests that Stephens was in the driver's blind spot, if only for a second or two. Also, it has been noted, when drivers make a turn such as this one, they glance in the opposite direction, from which they expect traffic to come. In this case, because the bus driver was turning left, his concern was traffic from the right.

Traffic Commissioner Steve Runde says that a traffic-signal configuration such as the one at Chestnut and North Fourth is not unusual: "Traffic-signal standards are determined by the federal government, and the traffic code doesn't prohibit left turns -- or right turns -- by vehicles into pedestrian crosswalks, but it does specifically say that vehicular traffic will always yield to pedestrians."

Plus, the green left-turn arrow is unnecessary. As soon as the "ball green" lights up, motorists can turn left onto a one-way street, so long as they yield to pedestrians.

To Runde's knowledge, the recent fatal accident was the first on that corner, but that doesn't mean downtown traffic signals will remain as they are. "We're looking at all those downtown signals," he says. "There's always revisions being made to the manual because of accidents like this." Factor in distracted drivers and daydreaming pedestrians and there is obviously no foolproof solution, but, as Runde concedes, having "traffic stopped in all directions while the pedestrians cross" would be one way of maximizing safety.

That would be a start, says Bob Foster.

Foster, chairman of the St. Louis Regional Bicycle Federation, was one of about 50 people who gathered at North Fourth and Chestnut on the last Friday of March to hold a vigil in memory of Stephens. Foster's group and another bicycle-advocacy group, Critical Mass, placed flowers at the accident scene and chalked messages -- "Cities are for people, not cars" -- on the sidewalks. "It's a very hectic intersection," notes Foster, 42, an editor by trade, "drivers angling to get on the interstate and cab drivers and buses pulling up. But the bigger issue is the lack of safety for pedestrians and bicyclists. The month before [the Stephens vigil], we were memorializing 10-year-old Antoine Simpson, killed on his bicycle by a car, and more recently there was a woman struck and killed in South County. There seems a disproportionate danger for pedestrians and bicyclists."

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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