PSAB meets to examine roadway concerns

In emotional meeting, Badlanis, county officers discuss procedures for investigating traffic deaths

Photo by Kaanita Iyer
Members of the West Orange Pedestrian Safety Advisory Board meet July 13 to discuss ongoing initiatives.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Pedestrian Safety Advisory Board gathered Thursday, July 13, at the Turtle Back Zoo Education Center to discuss solutions for roadway issues in West Orange to make township roads safer for pedestrians. Most of the board members were in attendance, joined by township residents, as well as Lt. Robert Parsons and Sgt. Daniel Cokelet of the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office.

The meeting began with public comments. A resident brought to the board’s attention that motorists have been using residents’ driveways on Aspen Road, a dead end, to make dangerous U-turns onto Northfield Avenue. He expressed his concern of rear-end collisions as a result of this, and recommended that “no U-turns” and “no stopping or standing” signs be placed at the beginning of Aspen Road.

Sunil Badlani suggested making a pedestrian crosswalk at the intersection of Gregory Avenue and Luddington Road, as passengers getting off of the jitney and other pedestrians may be in harm’s way due to the oncoming traffic from South Orange. Township engineer Leonard Lepore agreed to look into the issue and introduced the possibility of making Ludington Road a one-way thoroughfare.

Sangeeta Badlani, West Orange Police Department Traffic Bureau Officer Chris Jacksic and Lepore discussed the difficult sightline caused by parked cars on Lawrence Avenue, making it more difficult to turn onto South Valley Road. As a solution, they proposed bumping back the area included by the “no parking from here to corner” sign.

Following discussions of public comments and concerns, Parsons and Cokelet discussed their role and the legal proceedings that follow a pedestrian-motorist accident.

“The mission of the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office is to assist local law enforcement agencies with the prosecution of indictable crimes that occur in Essex County,” Parsons said. “If there is a single-person fatality in a single vehicle, we are not going to come out on that because we are there to prosecute people and charge people with crimes. All of the fatalities other than that (as well as accidents ending in serious bodily injury with risk of death or impairment), we do come out to and respond to.”

Cokelet clarified the investigation process.

“When we go to the scene, one of the first things we will do is make sure the scene is secured. We speak to the first responding officers, especially guys that are trained in collision investigation, and we try to get the preliminary information and try to determine the level of recklessness. We are trying to assess what the collision scene looks like, as far as evidence on the roadway and evidence from the cars. From there, we start trying to determine if the people operating the motor vehicle have valid driver’s licenses, and if there (are) any obvious signs that someone is operating the vehicle recklessly. We interview drivers, occupants, witnesses, look for videos, (photos and other evidence). Everything is done with the municipality,” Cokelet said.

Cokelet also mentioned that a motor vehicle operator only has to provide bodily fluids for alcohol or drug testing when a warrant is issued, as a result of suspicion of trained recognition experts at the crime scene and probable cause.

“Just because there was a fatal accident and someone is killed, that doesn’t mean I can take the driver to a hospital and have them take blood,” Cokelet said. Similarly, probable cause and suspicion must be established to issue warrants for the investigation of other causes of distracted driving, such as cell phones.

Sunil Badlani asked the officers several questions, such as, “if I go back, would I be able to get the details on a case, in terms of what exactly happened?” and suggesting that it should be mandatory for the driver at fault to provide a blood sample for a toxicology test.

The officers argued that unwarranted searches are prohibited by the Constitution. It was then brought to their attention that Badlani is the father of Nikhil Badlani, who died in 2011, as a result of a driver running past a stop sign and hitting the family’s car. The woman who hit the car was not asked to take a toxicology test, nor were her phone records checked to establish any form of distracted driving.

In an emotional discourse, Badlani said, “I lost my son in a situation where a woman came and hit (my car). To this day, she has not said what caused it. I have no idea what happened. We need closure; we need to know what happened.”

Parsons and Cokelet then offered to personally meet with Sunil and Sangeeta Badlani to go over the details of the case, and explain any paperwork, evidence and the investigative file given to the family following the conclusion of the investigation.

Educating residents was a recurring topic at the meeting, as Parsons mentioned that, in the majority of the pedestrian-vehicle cases, the pedestrian is at fault. To tackle this issue in West Orange, Jacksic spearheaded “Coffee with a Cop,” held June 20, at Dunkin’ Donuts. Jacksic said he believed it allowed for open dialogue between residents and law enforcement, especially in the matters of traffic and safety, which allowed the public to become more informed.

“(Pedestrians) need to understand that they need to pay attention, too. We are trying to educate them to make sure they cross properly,” Jacksic said.

The meeting, which went long, concluded with brief status updates of ongoing township projects. As part of the roadwork on Main Street, flashing pedestrian crossing signs are projected to be installed by the end of next month at Lakeside Avenue, Babcock Place, Kling Street, at Edison Central 6 and possibly Charles Street, once construction is completed.

Traffic light installation at Alisa Drive is pending the passing of a cost-sharing agreement between the Board of Education and the township, after which the township can sign its agreement with the county. The county has completed fieldwork and begun the design process; however, installation may be pushed to next year due to budgeting.

The board has not yet received a response on a grant applied for roadwork on Pleasant Valley Way and Eagle Rock Avenue. The board has recently applied for another $1,500 grant. The county is receiving $350 million less in federal funding this year, which may affect completion of roadway projects within the township.