A fatality on the Pufferbelly Trail crossing at Carroll Road last week was as inevitable as it was tragic. Both motorists and trail-users have complained of the hazard presented when motorists stop at a flashing yellow signal to allow pedestrians or cyclists to cross.
Thursday, those fears were realized when 63-year-old Leisa Elser-Patrick was struck and killed. She was walking north on the trail when a westbound motorist apparently stopped on Carroll Road to allow her to cross. Another westbound driver drove around the stopped vehicle and struck Elser-Patrick. She died at the scene.
The fatal collision was a sad convergence of events: one driver illegally committing a kind gesture; another driver too impatient to determine why a car was stopped in the road.
The danger wasn't unknown. The Journal Gazette's traffic columnist tackled the issue on at least two occasions, noting a year ago the crossing hazards on the Pufferbelly Trail, which has mid-block crossings on Ludwig, Cook, Wallen, Till and Carroll roads.
“Motorists are not to stop at trail crossings, unless a trail user is already in the crosswalk,” reporter Dave Gong wrote.
A letter writer in 2019 also warned of the danger.
“The flashing lights are yellow, which is intended to increase a driver's level of caution, not cause them to stop dead in the road,” wrote Warren Mead of Huntertown. “And there are stop signs on posts facing the traffic each way on the trail. Clearly, those using the trail and crossing the road are required to stop for the vehicular traffic. With all the distracted drivers on the roads these days, the last thing we need is vehicular traffic to stop dead in the road for no legitimate reason.”
Fort Wayne Trails is an advocacy group that raises funds for trail development. Two years ago the organization created a video to educate trail users and motorists on the motion-activated warning signs at the Pufferbelly crossings. Executive Director Megan McClellan, who joined the organization after the signs were installed, said she believed they were placed by the city and county with safety in mind.
“Up until this, I think that most people consider (the signs) help more than they hurt, even with the confusion,” she said. “But now, after somebody has been killed, that changes the dynamics quite a bit. So, it still is not our decision. This is up to the county and the city. But as I was telling someone earlier, we are all here to make the trails safer, and better.”
McClellan said Fort Wayne Trails has been sharing comments it has received with traffic-safety officials.
“There have been a lot of great ideas. And those include getting rid of the flashers,” she said. “Other things – lighting the sidewalk or the trail crossing better ... like white lights that shine down so that people in cars can see better. There have been suggestions about other forms of signage. And, obviously, there are people who suggest we should put in bridges over every one of those intersections.”
The latter idea isn't affordable, of course. But examining how other communities handle similar crossings certainly is warranted. Replacing flashing warning signs with signals activated by a button would give motorists a red light and allow trail users to cross safely. That's what is proposed for Coliseum Boulevard, where the Pufferbelly Trail would extend south near Glenbrook Square.
Where traffic and trail use is heavy, red-light crossings might be warranted. On county roads, it might be safer to eliminate the flashing yellow signs, which seem to create confusion, and place additional caution signs. Stepping up enforcement of speed limits would also help. City and county officials should take note.
In the meantime, there are lessons here for everyone:
For trail-users: You are required to stop at all crossings. Pedestrians and cyclists must obey all traffic signs and signals. If a motorist stops, it's best to wave them along and wait until the route is clear.
For motorists: Be alert for trail-users but do not stop unless someone is in the crossing. Don't assume drivers behind you or coming from the opposite direction will stop. Most important: Don't pass a stopped vehicle near a trail crossing – the seconds you might save aren't worth the loss of a life.