PSAB completes traffic safety plan to protect pedestrians

WO-traffic meeting1-C
Photo by Sean Quinn
The West Orange Pedestrian Safety Advisory Board meets May 31 to discuss the recently completed action plan to make the town’s roadways safer.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Pedestrian Safety Advisory Board has finally completed an action plan that lays out a detailed agenda to encourage greater traffic law enforcement, partner with fellow pedestrian organizations, and advocate for various safety measures and campaigns.

The plan, authored by senior research specialist Charles Brown of Rutgers University’s Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center, comes after more than a year of board meetings to discuss how to make West Orange’s streets safer. The best of those suggestions, along with ones raised during a well-attended public meeting in October, were included in the final report.

Now that the board has a defined plan, Councilman Jerry Guarino said it will have something concrete to show Essex County that it is serious about traffic safety. That will make county officials more willing to get on board with any changes the board requests, he said. Above all, Guarino said the board members will know exactly what to aim for moving forward.

“The next step is to take the action plan piece by piece, take the steps needed to do pedestrian safety,” Guarino said during the board’s May 31 meeting. “What do we really want to get?”

The plan certainly offers a lot for the board to choose from, starting with five action items to be prioritized during the 2016-17 fiscal year. These include encouraging the West Orange Township Council to join the Street Smart NJ campaign and partner with the Metropolitan YMCA of the Oranges to leverage the New Jersey Healthy Communities Network grant they received. The plan also calls for the board members to push the township to institutionalize its Complete Streets policy into all development matters. The plan also stresses that the board should advocate for the implementation of the Complete Streets concept plan that Brown’s Rutgers students created for the township.

The fifth action item that the plan states should be prioritized for 2016-17 is encouraging the Township Council to adopt a Vision Zero plan, to ensure that there are zero traffic fatalities in the township. Such an idea might sound impossible — in fact, New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton once stated that it will “probably remain elusive” in his own city. But Andy Anderson, the traffic safety coordinator for Essex County College’s public safety academy, said that the concept could be attained if West Orange takes it seriously.

“We can be realistic and say that Vision Zero is a hard, long climb,” Anderson said. “But zero is the only acceptable number. And until you get that philosophy through your heads, this (plan) is not going to fly.”

Aside from those immediate items, the action plan also outlines four major goals for the board to pursue between 2016 and 2020. Each of the goals is broken down, with strategies of how to accomplish them, with those strategies being further broken down into several actions for the board members to take. In other words, the board now has a wishlist of items and a comprehensive guide on how to attain them.

The first and widest-spanning goal is to make people safer through strategies focusing on driver, pedestrian and bicyclist safety. Many of the actions related to these strategies involve the West Orange Police Department, such as requesting that the township hire or reassign a police officer to the WOPD’s traffic bureau. The actions also emphasize encouraging the police to increase its enforcement of traffic laws, including cracking down on intoxicated or speeding drivers, pedestrians who ignore traffic signals and bicyclists who fail to use proper hand signals.

Another strategy to keep people safer is to develop awareness campaigns within the community, with actions ranging from distributing “Keep Kids Alive, Drive 25” signs to all residents to branding West Orange as pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly. A third strategy requires implementing behavioral programs in partnership with local government and stakeholders. Its actions suggest working with entities such as NJ Transit and the NJ Bike and Walk Coalition to educate pedestrians and bicyclists about safety.

The final strategy under the first goal is to provide legislative recommendations regarding traffic safety, and the actions offer several ideas for such policies. These include banning right turns on red lights in select locations, lowering the posted speed limit to 25 mph on all municipal roads and forbidding texting for pedestrians crossing the street.

The second goal of the plan is to create safer roads through the strategies of funding infrastructure improvements and implementing traffic-calming measures. Related actions involve encouraging the township to invest in pedestrian-scale lighting, bike sharrows, speed feedback signs and lane reductions wherever necessary. Another strategy and related action for this goal calls for the board to ask the county about the feasibility of traffic lights with pedestrian-only phases.

The third goal’s actions deal with instilling better traffic safety communication within West Orange by providing crash statistics to the public through newspapers, social media and the town website.

And lastly, the fourth goal is about increasing community support and involvement in traffic safety awareness by strengthening existing partnerships and engaging in new ones while also pursuing grants.

Overall, the Pedestrian Safety Advisory Board seemed largely pleased by the completed action plan. The only major issue was raised by Anderson, who observed that several actions listed rely heavily on police enforcement. This is a problem, he explained, because the WOPD’s two-person traffic bureau simply does not have enough manpower to make the plan effective.

Brown agreed, pointing out that the number of traffic officers a police department has says a lot about what it values.

“You have a police department here that, based on the number, shows that traffic safety isn’t their priority,” Brown said. “If it was, they would have more cops in the street like (Officer Scott Smarsh) monitoring traffic.” Smarsh was in attendance at the meeting.

“That’s something that you can control,” he continued. “We cannot control what the county is going to do. But as taxpaying residents here in West Orange, you can ask for more police officers on the street.”

Guarino answered that the council has always maintained that more police officers should be hired. But the township simply cannot afford make hires without cutting something else, the councilman said.

Rosary Morelli, an advocate for senior citizen safety, felt money was not an excuse.

“How much is a life worth?” Morelli asked.

In response, Guarino said he deeply cares about saving lives and would personally like to see 10 more traffic officers employed. Hopefully, he said, increased ticketing and new parking meters will provide enough additional revenue to make that happen.

Regardless of how many police officers are hired, many board members agreed that the most important thing West Orange can do to bring about traffic safety is create the perception that people will be penalized for breaking the law. Anderson said the reason communities such as Cedar Grove or Essex Fells have so few speeders is that their police departments have developed a reputation for punishing anyone who exceeds the posted limit. The threat of getting caught is a powerful deterrent, he said.

“You don’t necessarily have to write those tickets,” Anderson said. “But people have to know that (the police) could be out there.”

The board members agreed that anything to save a life is worth doing following the recent death of Dilma Khan, an 82-year-old West Orange resident who was struck by a DeCamp bus while crossing Harrison Avenue on May 26. Civil engineer Mike Dannemiller suggested leveraging the media and Facebook to raise awareness for police crackdowns on lawbreakers, thereby frightening people into following the law. The board also discussed using media to let people know about such tragedies so the general population knows how easily pedestrians can lose their lives.

In the end, Guarino praised Brown’s work in West Orange and thanked him for helping the Pedestrian Safety Advisory Board. With Brown’s assistance, Guarino said the board has done a lot to maintain traffic safety over the past year and a half. And now that it has its action plan, he said there is more to come.

“There’s more that we have to do,” Guarino said. “It’s going to be baby steps, but at least it will be steps that were never taken before.”