Las Olas Boulevard: Pedestrian Death Trap? Light-Up LED Crosswalk May Slow Traffic

Sixty-five year-old Carolyn Bianco was crossing Las Olas Boulevard at Southeast 11th Avenue on her way to an evening jazz concert when a person driving a black SUV struck her and kept going. Bianco was rushed to Broward General Medical Center, but the head injury she sustained was too severe. She died seven days later.

Exactly two weeks after her death, 53 year-old Douglas Allen de Boer was crossing Las Olas Boulevard at Southeast Second Avenue (less than a mile away from Bianco's accident) when a pick-up truck hit him. He sustained a severe head injury, broke multiple bones, and punctured a lung. De Boer was also rushed to Broward General Medical Center. He died five hours later.

That was almost four years ago, and while two pedestrian deaths in two weeks is uncommon, merchants along that stretch of Las Olas Boulevard have been protesting to implement crosswalks for years before those tragedies occurred. Today there are still no official crosswalks between 11th and 15th Avenue but a first-of-its-kind $62,000 LED-lit crosswalk is going to be installed in the next few months with the intention of saving lives.

Robin Merrill carries a bag full of rocks whenever she crosses Las Olas Boulevard. At the time of Bianco's accident, Merrill was inside her shop less than a block away when she rushed outside to help. After witnessing an alarming disregard towards pedestrian safety from drivers and county officials, Merrill claims a bag full of rocks is the only thing she has to protect herself as she walks the the four lanes across Las Olas Boulevard. She swings her homemade nunchuck at cars that whiz past her at dangerous speeds and actually strikes the ones that come within arm's length. "I know it isn't right, whacking a car with a bag of rocks, but it shouldn't have come to this," Merrill concedes bitterly.

Merrill runs the Upper Room Art Gallery that was once located at 1200 Las Olas Boulevard. A year after the March 2010 accidents, she crossed Las Olas Boulevard on her way to the deli across the street for dinner one evening. Since there is no light or crosswalk, Merrill had to cross the old fashioned way: looking left, right, left. She was already in the middle of the street when she noticed the bus driver revving up and speeding towards her. In the other two lanes, cars zipped by in a whoosh. She was trapped in the center of the road playing a game that must have looked like human Frogger from above. At that moment the adrenaline pulsed through her, and her first thought she remembers was of her then 14- and eight year-old sons and how they were at home eating the dinner she left for them in the fridge completely unaware that their mother was almost run over by a bus. ("I hit that bus with the bag [of rocks] and it made a loud noise, I know people on that bus heard it and saw it," Merrill adds.)

There are only three crosswalks; one at Eighth, Ninth and 15th Avenue. With the exception of those intersections, Merrill explains, every time a person crosses Las Olas Boulevard they are technically jaywalking. And if a driver hits a jaywalking pedestrian, he or she would not be considered at fault. Also, since most pedestrians that do not need medical attention after an accident simply stand up and walk away without calling police, Merril wouldn't be surprised if the pedestrian accident statistics are actually much higher than listed.

In the four years since Bianco's and de Boer's deaths, lowering the speed limit from 30 mph to 25 has been the only noticeable change Merrill can think of (although ticketing for speeding and jaywalking happens sometimes too but never regularly). But, as Merrill is quick to point out, a car that hits a person at 25 mph will still do considerable damage (assuming it doesn't kill him or her).

Merrill has spearheaded the pedestrian safety reform effort in Las Olas Village and has spent the last few years watching county and city officials ping-pong bureaucratically between funding and responsibility concerns. Although both groups agree that if Las Olas Boulevard shop owners were to paint the streets in fluorescent colors and install DOT-approved reflectors themselves, it would be considered vandalism.

Merrill worked closely with Diana Alarcon from the Department of Transportation for over a year, and a first-of-its-kind new crosswalk has been chosen to implement at Southeast 13th Avenue where the white intersection lines have eroded away. The new crosswalk will cost roughly $62,000 and is currently being used in Naples, Fla. but it'll be the first of its kind here in South Florida. It will be lit with solar-powered LEDs. There will be a sign marking that it's an official crosswalk, and supposedly even light up when someone walks on it. However, most importantly, it will force drivers to slow down between 11th and 15th avenue.

The crosswalk was supposed to be ready by the end of last year, and even though Merrill wanted the crosswalk in place before the height of the winter season, it's still not ready. Now, after years of planning, the crosswalk has been delayed as an "approved black pole" is manufactured to hold up the posted crosswalk sign. "At this point no one believes me," Merrill says. "I have these grandiose visions and must seem like a cheerleader, but [this area] has never had a lot to show for it."

While the ultimate goal of the new crosswalk is to save lives, this idea has not been welcomed by many motorists who fear it will only add unnecessary congestion during rush hour. "To them it's five minutes extra on their commute, but to someone else it could be their life or their loved one's," Merrill explains.

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