Failure to yield

Police look to cut city's car-pedestrian accidents

James Gillespie and his fiancee, Shannon Coble, cross 13th Avenue at 12th Street in Altoona. Photos by Greg Bock, Mirror photo illustration by Nick Anna

For a lot residents, getting around Altoona means putting one foot in front of the other — and taking their lives into their own hands.

“A lot of people don’t stop,” said James Gillespie, who pointed out that drivers don’t always yield to pedestrians when they should.

Gillespie and his fiancee, Shannon Coble, took a few minutes on Thursday to talk to Altoona police Cpl. Tom Venios about their experiences crossing the street in certain areas of the city and what they thought would help.

“This is part of the process,” Venios said of the recent initiative by Altoona police and PennDOT to decrease the number of pedestrian-involved crashes in the city.

Between 2013 and 2017, 22 percent of all the crashes involving vehicles and pedestrians in the six counties of Blair, Bedford, Cambria, Fulton, Huntingdon and Somerset happened on the streets of Altoona. In all, 77 people were struck by vehicles in Altoona between 2013 and 2017. Two of those people lost their lives, according to PennDOT and Altoona police numbers.

As part of the effort to see fewer such tragedies, Altoona police are spending time talking to not only pedestrians, but also drivers, to get the word out about yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks and also to find out areas that they need to address.

Gillespie, who lives downtown and, despite having a car, often walks, said crossing some city streets, especially in areas such as 17th Street at Margaret Avenue, can be tricky. Even if a person manages to get across two lanes of 17th Street, heavy traffic can mean getting stuck in the median while vehicles whiz by.

“At night time, they fly up over the bridge and don’t stop,” Gillespie said of the vehicles headed from downtown over the 17th Street bridge.

Coble said she avoids that intersection if walking from downtown to the other side of 17th Street.

“Nope,” Coble, 34, said. “I’ll go the long way around.”

Coble said drivers also run stop signs, especially on 11th Street near the post office, and Gillespie pointed out that some intersections don’t have crosswalks and drivers that are making turns just don’t yield.

“A lot of times, they don’t pay attention and they’re turning left and you’re trying to cross,” Gillespie said.

Altoona police received a $14,896 grant through PennDOT to do dedicated pedestrian safety enforcement, with every cent of that money being used strictly toward enforcement details, PennDOT District 9 spokesman Anthony Scalia said.

“PennDOT, through funding made available by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, awarded a grant to the Altoona Police Department to do targeted enforcement in areas where pedestrian crashes are a known issue,” Scalia said.

Altoona police Lt. Jeffrey Pratt called the funding a “Godsend.”

“It give us an avenue of enforcement we otherwise would not have without that PennDOT money,” Pratt said.

Altoona police will be focus on making sure drivers are yielding the right of way to pedestrians that are attempting to cross at designated areas.

Venios said the goal is not to hand out tickets but to educate the public and make the streets of Altoona safer.

“We narrowed the areas of the city where we have the most auto-pedestrian accidents,” Venios said. The three areas are, not surprisingly, busy streets: Sixth Avenue, Seventh Avenue and 17th Street.

“When there is a pedestrian in the crosswalk, you have to stop,” Venios said, adding that the enforcement also includes talking with pedestrians so they understand their responsibilities when crossing the street.

Venios said looking at the crash data from 2013 through 2017, the analysis concluded about 50 percent of the crashes were the fault of drivers and 50 percent were the fault of pedestrians.

In talking to people, Venios said officers have learned the two biggest issues with pedestrians are people crossing against the light at intersections and people crossing streets mid-block — which isn’t illegal but does mean drivers aren’t required to yield the right-of-way.

Crossing high traffic areas such as 17th Street can be difficult for the people — especially the elderly and those using mobility scooters — so when drivers don’t stop for people in crosswalks, it creates a dangerous situation, Venios said.

“I walk everywhere,” said 86-year-old downtown resident William DeCriscio, who walks with a cane and has multiple health issues. “I’m a little slow. Like a turtle.”

DeCriscio said he’s careful, though. After all, he was hit by a truck on Sixth Avenue at 11th Street 81 years ago, when he was 5 years old. “But I survived,” he said.

DeCriscio said he does try to avoid some of the busier streets and is extra careful when he does cross.

“I watch myself,” DeCriscio said.

“Our ultimate goal with this grant is to lower the number of auto-pedestrian accidents and, in the next five years, have no fatalities,” Venios said.

The enforcement is in full swing, and with school starting again, police said it’s even more important that drivers are aware of pedestrians — and the school zone speed of 15 mph.

“We just want to remind drivers to slow down,” Venios said. “Be courteous to the people who are walking.”

In the next few weeks, people can expect an increased presence of police around the schools, particularly the Altoona Area High School and Junior High campus, Venios said.

It won’t just be Altoona police, either.

“We’re going to put some officers on school buses during the first few weeks of the school year,” Logan Township Police Chief David Reese said, adding that the department has been using social media to remind drivers of their duties when a school bus stops to unload and load students.

Despite reminders every year, school bus drivers still encounter drivers who pass while the students are getting on and off the bus, ignoring the red flashing lights and the retractable “stop” sign that pops out on the side of each bus.

“Most of the time, drivers obey the law,” said Rick Focht, safety director for Fullington Auto Bus Co. in Duncansville.

Fullington operates school buses for six school districts, including Hollidaysburg, and Focht said a lot of those buses are equipped with cameras to help identify drivers who do drive past while the red lights are flashing.

Focht said after a summer without seeing buses on the road, there is always a concern during the first few weeks about drivers forgetting the law and stopping when a school bus has its flashing red lights on.

Trooper Joe Dunsmore of Troop G in Hollidaysburg said drivers headed in either direction on a road without a physical barrier as a median must stop at least 10 feet from a stopped school bus that is loading or unloading students and has its red flashing lights on. If at an intersection, all traffic must sit and wait for the bus, he added.

The only time a driver does not have to stop is if they are headed in the opposite direction than the bus on a divided highway.

“It’s a very serious penalty,” Dunsmore said, pointing out that the fine is $250 coupled with a six-month loss of the driver’s license.

“They’ll be zero tolerance,” Dunsmore said. “It’s simple. If you’re approaching a school bus with activated lights, stop.”

Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.