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Friday, May 23, 2008

Put the brakes on


Pedestrians in peril, marchers say

By Mary E. O’Leary
Register Topics Editor
NEW HAVEN
— There were five police officers, three crossing guards and dozens of students in safety vests and picket signs at the intersection, and still about a dozen cars blew through the red light.
On one hand, Yale medical student Alex Diaz de Villalvilla, 28, was incredulous, given the police presence. On the other, however, flagrant traffic violations are something he said he encounters every day.
“You just went through a red light, you criminal,” Diaz de Villalvilla shouted at one offender, as the man’s car headed to the connector for interstates 91 and 95.
Diaz de Villalvilla was one of the students who had just attended a traffic safety update Thursday at the Yale Medical School, and had joined the two-block walk to the corner of South Frontage Road and York Street in remembrance of their classmate, Mila Rainof.
Rainof, 27, who would have graduated from the medical school Monday, was killed as she crossed the intersection on April 19 on a green light. Yale officials said witnesses told police that two cars managed to avoid Rainof, but a third driver didn’t see her.
Fresh flowers surrounded a photo of the California native that was propped up at the base of a light fixture on York Street in a memorial to the student who was planning to continue training as an emergency room physician.
New Haven Police Lt. Holly Wasilewski said there was no way police sent to ensure the safety of the marchers could safely pull over the violators.
Simply taking down the license plate and ticketing the owner doesn’t fly in Connecticut, she said. Police have to determine first who was actually driving the car.
It’s the reason Connecticut doesn’t have red-light cameras, where a photo is taken of a car’s license plate as it goes through the light and a ticket, carrying a heavy fine, is sent to the owner, regardless of who is driving.
Advocates for improved traffic safety at the meeting at the medical school vowed to work to get the law changed as part of improvements to make the city safer for pedestrians, and change a culture where roads are designed to accommodate speed and traffic, but not humans.
“It is a deterrent, but I don’t think it is the cure-all,” Wasilewski said of instituting red-light cameras in Connecticut.
Dr. Kimberly Davis, a trauma specialist at the Yale Medical School, ticked off a series of grim statistics for the students and faculty who had come together to do something in Rainof’s honor.
Motor vehicle accidents in the United States account for 350,000 hospitalizations yearly and are the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 14 and 24.
In 2006, 5,000 pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents in the United States, or approximately one pedestrian every two hours; 61,000 were injured — one every nine minutes, she said.
In New Haven, 13 percent of traffic accidents involved pedestrians, which is up eightfold as of 2006 and is more than the 9 percent to 10 percent rate for the state as a whole.
“We need to make an aggressive attempt to do education and prevention ... it involves a community that is willing to say we have had enough and we will not tolerate this anymore,” Davis said.
Michael Piscitelli, the city’s director of transportation, traffic and parking, said new traffic lights for 12 intersections along Route 34, which bisects the downtown from the medical school area, are in the final design stage.
Work will also begin soon on a new loading dock for Yale-New Haven Hospital, where deliveries can be made under the Air Rights Garage. Trucks now have to back up across South Frontage Road, which blocks and slows traffic entering the highway, adding to congestion.
Longer range, he said, the city is aggressively pushing the reclamation of the limited access highway off the interstates that leads to Route 34. He said the environmental review of this is set for the end of the year and he projected it will be a reality “in less than a decade.”
“We want to roll the highway back,” Piscitelli said.
Traffic calming measures, bicycle lanes and future developments that put pedestrians at the center are all in the planning, he said.
Piscitelli said 45 percent of city residents already car pool, while 14 percent walk to work.
“This is the way the world is moving ... the idea of ... reducing your time in the car is happening right now and our challenge is to capture it and to grow from it,” Piscitelli said.
Mary E. O’Leary can be reached at 789-5731 or moleary@nhregister.com.

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