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Cross street waving flag

But screeching brakes mark start of Rocky’s pedestrian-safety plan

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There's a Salt Lake City employee out there whose timing could use some work.

Mayor Rocky Anderson had just completed a news conference Wednesday on pedestrian safety. After completing a couple of follow-up interviews, a television reporter grabbed one of the new orange flags at the 250 E. 200 South crosswalk to give her greater visibility and started across the crosswalk.

SCREEEEECH! A large city water truck, towing a backhoe, barely skidded to a halt while she passed. Anderson's eyes closely followed the driver as he pulled away.

Anderson had just finished discussing how the city was going to crack down on drivers who violated crosswalk regulations.

"Motorists are completely disregarding the safety of pedestrians in the crosswalks," he said. "I myself have felt like I'm taking my life in my hands. We will vigorously enforce these laws."

As one of several new initiatives intended to make pedestrians safer, the city has placed orange flags at five of the busiest crosswalks in the city. Pedestrians can pick them up and wave them around while they cross, to help drivers see them. Anderson himself demonstrated use of the flags with several local children.

Depending on your point of view, the subsequent water truck incident illustrated a) those drivers are excessively inattentive or b) those flags need to be bigger.

For some time Anderson has decried the danger to pedestrians in the city, a big roadblock to his objective to make Salt Lake City more pedestrian-friendly. In response, city workers have installed the crosswalk flags, made traffic signals longer to give slower pedestrians more time to cross (a second for every 4 feet), increased fines for motorists who violate crosswalks ($70 first offense, double each additional offense), begun crafting a "pedestrian master plan" and examined parking lot exits for blind spots.

"We think this will be a great thing for the city," the mayor said.

The city has also ordered six crosswalk signals that tell pedestrians exactly how much time is left before the signal changes — "countdown" signals. Community and Economic Director Alison Gregersen said some other cities are using them with great success.

"They leave it up to the pedestrian to decide whether he can make it," she said.

Other communities also use the crosswalk flags, which you pick up on one end of the crosswalk and deposit at the other. (The biggest problem with the flags, of course, is theft — news conference attendees were making bets as to how long they would last. "I know if I were a kid I'd want one for my bicycle," one said.)

Most important of all, city officials say, is that both motorists and pedestrians be cautious and courteous.

"We may be within our rights, but we don't want to be within our rights in the hospital," Anderson said.

As one poet put it:

Here lies the body of William Jay,

Who died defending his right of way.

He was right, dead right, as he sped along,

But he's just as dead as if he were dead wrong.

E-mail: alan@desnews.com