LENOX -- Lenox officials are exploring stepped-up enforcement of the state law requiring motorists to stop for pedestrians in marked crosswalks.
Despite posted signs at designated crosswalks in traffic-clogged communities such as Lenox, Lee, Pittsfield and Great Barrington, residents and visitors report too many motorists fail to stop for pedestrians and often speed through crosswalks. And some pedestrians assume oncoming traffic always will stop.
In Lee, Police Officer Ryan Lucy said, "we're very strict and we've issued several citations" for crosswalk violations. He said Police Chief Joseph Buffis periodically assigns an officer to monitor traffic compliance with the state law.
"We try to stay on top of that, we stop motorists for any infractions," Lucy added. A "blatant violation" triggers a strong response.
In a town that has seen a sizable number of crosswalk injuries, as well as a fatality in 2006, Lucy said "it's still a chronic problem because people aren't taking their time. They just get tunnel vision and drive. It's worse in the summer with non-stop traffic. A lot of people are lost, looking at their GPS or a map and not paying attention."
Great Barrington Police Chief William Walsh Jr. said he emphasizes to his officers the need to enforce crosswalk laws.
"It's a constant thing, and we try to ride herd on that issue. It's difficult because you have to do it in the middle of everything else," he said. "We do have a dangerous Main Street and it takes a lot of vigilance."
Pittsfield Police Sgt. John Murphy said the department often assigns crosswalk-monitoring patrols.
The issue came to a boil in Lenox at Wednesday evening's Select Board meeting when a downtown resident complained bitterly and angrily that the state law -- which carries a potential penalty of up to $200 per violation -- was not being enforced by patrols or "random selective enforcement."
Town Manager Gregory Federspiel, interviewed on Thursday, said that while no specific funding is available for such enforcement without approval by town-meeting voters, he would meet with Police Chief Stephen O'Brien to discuss the problem.
"Can small efforts be made within the existing police budget? Not easily, because budgets are tight," Federspiel said. "We don't have funds we can tap into. Our reserve account is supposed to be held for emergency expenditures that weren't anticipated."
But he suggested an officer on a regular daytime shift might be able to "spend a little time. There were some legitimate concerns brought up and we do our best to try to respond and figure out ways to make things better."
O'Brien told The Eagle that while he wouldn't call it "a problem of epidemic proportions, there are people who violate the laws, and we're aware of that.
"But it's difficult to set up for radar or pedestrian enforcement and then have to pack up and move on to a lockout, a medical call, a shoplifting or a larceny investigation that's going to take the remainder of a shift."
The police chief said he has "yet to see any type of grant money specifically for crosswalk enforcement; I'd be happy to look into that, but we receive a yearly grant from the state that provides for enforcement of seat belts, operating under the influence, and we dedicate a patrol to that for four-hour blocks."
O'Brien also said there has not been a pedestrian accident in the center of town for well over a decade. Funding for traffic enforcement on local roads has evaporated because of tight budgets, he added.
"We can do a lot of things if we have the funding to get it done," he said, "but I know the situation the town is in and I have yet to ask for that to be replenished. Maybe, when the town and the country are in a better position, yes, I'd love to have that money back."
Lenox Select Board Chair man Kenneth Fowler said that he's "in absolute agreement with the issues brought up" by Ellen Marshall of Sunset Avenue, just off Main Street, "and I identify with every one of them because I live with them myself."
He said on Thursday that his plan is "always to come up with solutions" and said he intends to address the problem with the police chief.
"The issue about the crosswalks is a public safety concern, and I see people breaking that law all the time," Fowler added. He said he would seek guidance from the police department on whether officers assigned to downtown, particularly before and after Tanglewood events, can pay attention to the crosswalk issue.
"I think there is a solution," he said, "and we'll have to find it. It's always a matter of funding. It is a worthy goal to pursue, because we haven't had any serious injuries, but it's only a matter of time. I've come close many many times out there."
Pedestrian safety in crosswalks has been a major, often divisive, issue in recent years, especially following a series of tragic accidents in several communities.
Here is a partial list of the most serious incidents, as culled from Eagle archives:
May 28, 2012: Two Russian tourists were seriously injured after being struck in a crosswalk on Housatonic Street in Lee by a Canadian motorist. The pedestrians were taken to Berkshire Medical Center with serious, but non-life threatening injuries. The driver told police he never saw the two women in the downtown crosswalk. He was cited for failure to stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk.
Jan. 23, 2012: A New York state motorist was charged with failing to yield to a pedestrian after a 75-year-old woman was injured after she was struck in a Main Street crosswalk in Lee. The pedestrian was sent to Berkshire Medical Center with non life-threatening injuries.
Dec. 2, 2009: A pedestrian was severely injured crossing Dalton Avenue in Pittsfield and died five days later. The driver was cited for motor vehicle homicide. The city already had stepped up crosswalk enforcement through a $7,500 state grant providing overtime for a six-month period to enforce pedestrian-crossing laws. Pittsfield Police Department crash data revealed a total of 39 pedestrian-related accidents in 2008, with similar totals by the end of 2009.
Dec. 20, 2008: Prominent downtown Lee businessman Douglas Wilcox was severely injured after he was struck in a downtown crosswalk on Main Street. His recovery required a year of treatment. Within the following four months, there were two more car-pedestrian accidents in the town. A local woman, 22, suffered several broken bones and a lacerated liver; another 22-year-old woman, pregnant at the time, escaped serious injury after she was knocked down by a vehicle while she was in a Main Street crosswalk. Her pregnancy was unaffected. The series of accidents led the town to install additional, visible signage.
Nov. 4, 2006: A 66-year-old tourist from New Brunswick, Canada, was hit in a Housatonic Street crosswalk in Lee and died of his injuries three weeks later.
May 25, 2006: A 79-year-old Great Barrington woman was struck and killed instantly while carrying groceries in a South Main Street crosswalk.