Kirk Ross: The most dangerous time of the year

August 23, 2013 

Kirk Ross


For several years running, I’ve set aside whatever burning issues there are out there to devote some beginning-of-the-semester ink to safety and the art of street smarts in our little community.

I do this not to be preachy but because too many times as a reporter and editor, I’ve had to write about the awful deaths of promising young people, well-known researchers, beloved professors and dedicated university employees killed crossing our streets. It is a sad, sad task. I knew some of these people and their kids, and I’d rather it not happen to you and your family.

So, listen.

The next couple of months are the most dangerous time of year on the streets of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. The surge of traffic with the return of school and late summer’s fading light in the evening and morning are a long-proven deadly combination.

Two decades ago, a major study of pedestrian and bicycle accidents here conducted by graduate students at UNC’s Highway Safety Research Center confirmed that early in the semester, when traffic is heavy and many motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists are new to the area, the accident rate shoots up. As the daylight hours shorten in September and October things get worse. That study was done long before cellphones were ubiquitous and turned the distraction level to 11.

Bus bench survey

A few years back, I sat on a bus bench in downtown Carrboro for an hour and a half surveying the behavior of cars and people talking, texting or reading something as they passed through the crosswalk at Greensboro and Weaver streets. I don’t recommend it unless you feel a need to lose your faith in humanity.

Of course, the central business districts aren’t the only place where distracted driving is a danger. But when you combine it with distracted walking and biking and a higher degree of unfamiliarity and pack all that into a few city blocks, the likelihood of a serious accident with bodily injury grows exponentially.

The fatalities and injuries endured over the past couple of decades has led to a number of strategies, from tighter enforcement to better lighting and signage. Chapel Hill’s cellphone ban also figures in.

All of these efforts mean nothing, though, if they’re not accompanied by relentless reinforcement. All of us need to help in setting the standard for safe behavior. And the towns have to be willing to step in when construction and sidewalk closures create unsafe conditions

This year, for instance, with construction on Columbia Street and Smith Level Road narrowing the lanes on the two main entrances to town from the south, there is added confusion. Considering the scores of pedestrians that use the bus stop at the intersection of Culbreth Road and Smith Level Road and the bottleneck at the bottom of Columbia Street, Carrboro and Chapel Hill will need to step up enforcement and traffic management and not leave it to DOT contractors to watch out for the kids gathering at the bus stops.

It’s a great time of year here, time to get out and about. But please remember to also keep an eye out for the unexpected. And, most of all, hang up and drive. That person about to step off the curb may not realize you’re still on the phone.

Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at

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