Photo by Jennifer Lund

CHAPEL HILL – More than 400 pedestrians and 180 bicyclists are reportedly struck by motor vehicles in the Triangle each year.  Pedestrians hit at 40 mph have an 85 percent chance of dying.  Those flashing lights and white stripes you often see as you’re driving in Chapel Hill and Carrboro are not for decoration—they’re crosswalks, and they need to be taken seriously.

Town leaders are speaking out about the importance of recognizing crosswalks, especially in busy intersections where drivers and pedestrians alike are often in a rush to get to their destinations.

Long Range Transportation Planning Manager of Chapel Hill, David Bonk, says he wants residents to know that a joint effort between drivers and pedestrians is the best way to ensure safety on both ends.

“It’s a challenge of education on both sides of the equation,” Bonk says. “We need to get the word out to drivers that the crosswalks are places in which they need to yield to pedestrians under all conditions.  On the other side of that equation, we need to make it clear to pedestrians that just because there is a crosswalk there, doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t be very wary of the driver behavior and not to simply walk out into a crosswalk without making sure that they have in some way caught the attention of the driver.”

Crosswalks in high-traffic areas like Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard are usually signaled by flashing LED lights, a yellow-diamond crosswalk sign, and words and symbols that say, “Yield here to pedestrians.”

Despite these warnings, Bonk says he thinks there could be even more to improve the effectiveness and flow of areas where pedestrians need to cross the street.

“The whole issue of pedestrian safety nationally is kind of an evolving area of research and interest.  We are working with the state to identify some possible enhancements to the warning lights that we currently have at some of the crosswalks that we think we can make better,” he says.

Bonk elaborates on a specific experimental option that he hopes could be approved and funded by the state, called a “hawk” signal.  This would specifically allow pedestrians to activate a signal that would stop traffic under operating conditions.

These improvements seem necessary because although crosswalk operation is a joint effort between drivers and pedestrians, Bonk says he thinks the former group presents the bigger challenge.

“The general recognition that pedestrians have a right to be in the street at crosswalks, and conversely there is a responsibility of the drivers to allow them to do that, is not as widely understood by drivers as it should be,” Bonk says.

Not only do drivers need to recognize a crosswalk and allow pedestrians the right of way, but they also need to be driving the appropriate speed as they approach.  Chapel Hill Public Information Officer, Catherine Lazorko, explains that motorists are often speeding, which makes it even more difficult to notice, or stop for, pedestrians entering a crosswalk.

“Following the speed limit is important. It’s also important that pedestrians make sure before they enter the crosswalk that the traffic has stopped.  I think it’s a good habit to even make eye contact with a driver before you’re putting your body in front of a vehicle,” Lazorko says.

Lazorko explains that the Town has a prolonged year-long campaign of public outreach in which social media is used to remind residents how to use the crosswalks, as well as general safety tips.

Lazorko and Bonk both mention that these efforts do have to be stepped up each year to inform the high number of new students arriving to UNC who might not be used to the town’s system of crosswalks.

“Each fall, we know that we welcome a new group of student residents who are new to Chapel Hill, and they’re learning how to move safely through our town, whether they’re on foot, or they’re driving, or they’re riding a bike,” says Lazorko.

“We have anywhere from 20-25% turnover in a given year of people who are in town going to school; it’s always a challenge to educate them about the environment they’re going to be operating in,” Bonk says.

Lazorko and Bonk also explain that the Town of Chapel Hill, and particularly the Chapel Hill Police Department, are cooperating in a statewide program called Watch For Me NC, a pedestrian, cyclist, and driver crash awareness campaign.

The campaign consists of safety and educational messages and an enforcement effort by area police to crack down on some of the violations of safety laws.

“Chapel Hill is striving to be a very pedestrian-safe community, and it really requires cooperation among pedestrians, motorists, and bicyclists to work together and make it as safe as possible,” says Lazorko.

For more information about how to get involved with Watch For Me NC, or to ensure you’re up to date with state laws regarding motorists and pedestrians, visit