“We started walking across the street because there was a green light and a truck just kind of pulled up and decided, ‘Oh, I’m gonna be a jerk’ and pulled forward and almost ran us over,” freshman Justin Meeker said.
Freshman Josh Hoffman tells a similar story about a time a car that “looked kind of like an Oldsmobile” almost hit him while he walked across the road.
“The cars would almost start driving and then they’d be like, ‘Wait, I can’t drive because there are kids here,’” said freshman Natalie Fragnito, a friend of Meeker and Hoffman.
What do these three accounts have in common? They are all close calls that occurred on the same stretch of road: the intersection of highway 15-501 that separates Northwood’s campus and the nearby Bojangles’ restaurant. Students walk across the highway, which has no crosswalk and a 55 mph speed limit, before and after school. Meeker, for instance, has crossed the street to get to Bojangles’ most afternoons since school began in August.
School Resource Officer Herbie Stubbs agrees that the conditions are dangerous, but acknowledges that he cannot control where students go after school, and whether they walk to those areas or not. Nevertheless, he says he has tried to keep the passage safe.
“I’ve actually assisted students to cross the road by pulling my car into the middle of the intersection with the blue light to get them across the road, so they wouldn’t get hit,” Stubbs said.
He sees a possible solution to the problem.
“Hopefully [the Department of Transportation (DOT)] will put a crosswalk out there with a button that you see sometimes in downtown areas, but I’m afraid it’s going to take something bad happening before that happens,” Stubbs said.
Bryan Gruesbeck, town manager of Pittsboro, has kept the local police department up to date about the intersection. According to Gruesbeck, the first step to get a crosswalk in place is to find out who has jurisdiction over the stretch of road. In this case, that party is North Carolina’s DOT.
“[Highway] 15-501 falls under the authority of the North Carolina Department of Transportation,” Gruesbeck said. “They have full authority for everything from top to bottom: what kind of construction takes place and when, what sort of improvements are made to it, what sort of safety measures are taken…”
Ginny Inman works with North Carolina’s Department of Transportation Communications department. She spoke about the possibility of a crosswalk.
“NC DOT has met with operations for Chatham County Schools, but at this time [DOT and Chatham County Schools] did not want to pursue putting up a crosswalk at the school area,” Inman said. “So we do not have any plans for a study in the area for a crosswalk to my knowledge.”
Bojangles’ employee Edward Farrow noticed that students cross the four-lane intersection in groups ranging from three to six members. He says they are attracted to the restaurant because it is cheap and close to the campus.
“It’s putting [the pedestrians] at risk, and it’s putting [Bojangles’] at risk because it makes us look bad because we’re not preventing the kids from crossing the street,” Farrow said.
As Northwood’s student population grows, so does the amount of traffic entering and leaving Northwood on weekday mornings and afternoons. Included in the traffic are student drivers and licensees as young as 16 years old. A safety organization called “Teens in the Driver’s Seat” explained the risk that young drivers create, noting that more than 3,000 teens die from car accidents in the U.S. each year.
“That’s the equivalent of a commercial jet loaded with teenagers crashing once every other week for an entire year,” the group’s website said.
One of Farrow’s customers also noticed the danger to students.
“There was one guy, he came through the drive thru and he was telling us that we need to have somebody out there telling the kids they can’t cross the street because it’s not safe,” Farrow said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that, in 2012, close to 5,000 pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents. Students who walk from Northwood to Bojangles’ know the risks of crossing a busy highway such as 15-501.
“You could get hit, die,” Fragnito said.
Farrow gave his advice to student pedestrians.
“Just catch a ride, because if you get hit out there, there’s little chance you’re going to survive. People are [driving] 50, 60 miles an hour,” Farrow said.
Stubbs summed up the gravity of the issue.
“Somebody at some point in time is going to get struck by a vehicle out there,” Stubbs said. “It’s going to be a sad situation.”
– By Adrianne Cleven