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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Police Pose as Pedestrians to Catch Lawbreakers

Motorists Must Stop When Pedestrians Step Into Crosswalk

In an unusual undercover operation, Officer Grace Delgado posed as a pedestrian on a busy Chicago street while fellow officers waited for drivers to race past her, in violating a law that requires drivers to yield to pedestrians at crosswalks, even if there is no stop sign.

In 2008, the Windy City joined a growing number of metropolises and small towns that are sending officers into traffic to make drivers be more aware of pedestrians.

"People, they don't care," said Delgado, wearing a bright pink baseball hat and orange blouse that made her particularly difficult to miss. "The whole mentality is 'Get out of my way.'"

Chicago police stopped 78 vehicles in just two hours to inform drivers that they'd just violated a law that's been on the books for years. Officers stopped only drivers who kept moving after Delgado had walked four or five feet into the road, otherwise that number easily could have been doubled.

Drivers came up with all kinds of explanations after they were pulled over: One driver saw the pedestrian in the crosswalk but was unaware of the law requiring him to stop. Another was familiar with the law, but didn't see the pedestrian.

According to the 2006 statistics compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, almost 4,800 pedestrians were killed and 61,000 injured. In recent years, 65 Chicago pedestrians have been struck and killed annually.

Although the number of deaths has dropped, elderly pedestrian deaths remain high, and there is concern those numbers could climb again as more vehicles take to the road.

"We're beginning to see a healthy desire of older folks to remain active and go out for their daily walks," said Doug Hecox, spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration. "That, along with more cars ... is a recipe for danger."

As the economy continues to struggle, "The way gas prices are, people are rediscovering their feet," said Pam Fischer, highway traffic safety director in New Jersey. The Garden State recently launched a "Cops in the Crosswalks" program.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, most motorists were miffed to find themselves pulled over. "It was too late for me to get on the brakes," said Roland Sapitula.

Louis Ramirez, 84, said he wouldn't have stopped, even if he had seen Delgado. "There's no sign out there," he said. "I (do) not have to stop."

Officers lectured motorists about the law, and then sent drivers on their way. But according to police, the only thing more effective than a lecture from a police officer is a ticket.

"If there's really no threat of getting a ticket for it, you're not going to really pay attention," said officer Chuck Trendle, who was on duty with Delgado.

Authorities "tried the educational route for years," said Paul Loriquet, spokesman for the Essex County, N.J. prosecutor's office. "But until you hit somebody in the wallet, it doesn't stick."

Indeed, in Bellingham, Washington, after the city started a police-decoy program in 2002, the percentage of motorists who yielded to pedestrians grew at least 25 percent - even at corners where tickets were not being issued.

The results in St. Petersburg, Florida, were even more noticeable. After police began writing tickets, educating the public and installing flashing beacons, the percentage of motorists who yielded to pedestrians spiked from 2 percent in 2003 to 82 percent in 2007. Between 2005 and 2006 pedestrian crashes dropped 17 percent.

"It starts putting pedestrians on their radar," said Ron Van Houten, a Western Michigan University psychology professor who has studied pedestrian safety and trained police personnel around the nation, including Chicago.

According to police, undercover pedestrians will focus attention on crosswalk safety the same way that giving tickets for seat belt violations convinced more people to buckle up in the 1980s.

"Eventually, people get it," Trendle said.

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