Press-Republican

July 21, 2013

Danger in the dark

State Police say safety is the responsibility of both drivers, pedestrians

By FELICIA KRIEG
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — I haven’t driven the same way since December.

That month, I took part in a practical experiment with New York State Police at Troop B’s Ray Brook barracks after the Press-Republican requested they create a test to illustrate the danger posed when pedestrians dress in dark-colored garb after dusk or before sunrise.

Since then, I’ve turned into a cautious driver, always scanning the roads at night, looking for someone that may not be looking for me.

”Remember that preventing collisions for motor vehicles and pedestrians or bicyclists is not just the responsibility of the person operating the motor vehicle,” said State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation Lt. John Coryea.

”It’s also the responsibility of the pedestrian or the bicyclist.”

FELT HELPLESS

A few days before the nighttime visibility testing, I was driving in the dark at about 10 p.m. on Route 3 in the Town of Plattsburgh when I saw two young men who ran out into traffic in an attempt to cross the street near the Comfort Inn.

I felt helpless as I watched them, praying that the many cars driving through the green light would notice them.

Every driver did, but it is possible that things could have gone the other way.

In 2012, 32 people were killed in motor-vehicles crashes in Troop B’s area, Coryea said. Three of those who died were pedestrians, and one was a bicyclist.

And last year, 27 accidents between motor vehicles and bicyclists or pedestrians resulted in 27 injuries.

FATAL ACCIDENT

So far this year, State Police have responded to 13 motor-vehicle accidents involving pedestrians, including a fatal crash on May 20 that killed 27-year-old Ashley Poissant, who was jogging with friends on Perry Mills Road in Champlain at dusk.

The driver of that vehicle, Ronald Trombly, 85, of Mooers, was charged June 27 with manslaughter and vehicular manslaughter after a blood sample tested at the New York State Police Forensic Investigative Center in Albany showed he had a .12 percent blood-alcohol content at the time of the accident.

Police have not released details about the circumstances of the accident, including whether the joggers were wearing brightly colored or reflective clothing, which State Police say significantly decreases the likelihood of accidents.

REFLECTIVE VEST

After seeing the impact reflective clothing can have on a pedestrian’s visibility, I purchased a reflective vest, which I now wear when I run at night.

State Police have handled five motor-vehicle accidents involving bicyclists this year.

“It’s important to note that in the majority of those accidents, pedestrian or bicyclist error was a contributing factor in the accident,” Coryea said.

“It’s not all on the driver all the time,” Investigator Michael Campbell said after the experiment.

“Pedestrians and bicyclists have a responsibility and obligation to take the steps to protect themselves just as much as a driver has a responsibility to make sure he’s not running into these people (pedestrians).”

‘OUTDRIVING’ HEADLIGHTS

Many may not know that it’s possible for drivers to “outdrive” their headlights, meaning, by the time they realize there’s something in the road, they’ve already driven past it — or hit it.

This happens if the motorist is driving too fast, in bad weather or with headlights that have fogged lenses or are obscured by condensation or dirt, said Campbell, who is part of the Troop B Collision Reconstruction Unit.

“At 60 miles an hour, you go down to mess with the radio or you’re texting and you’re taking your eyes off the road for three or four seconds, that’s quite a distance you’re moving, and it only takes a second for something to jump out.”

EXPERIMENT CONDITIONS

This time, the experiment was conducted on Kelly Road, a dead end in the Town of Plattsburgh off Military Turnpike.

Participants in the nighttime visibility tests, both in December and in June of this year, were members of the State Police Collision Reconstruction Unit: Investigators Campbell, Brendan Frost and Thomas Houle and Troopers Gregory Hayes, Kendra Moran and Kristina Stewart.

In the 2007 Pontiac Grand Am test vehicle, besides me, were photographer Gabe Dickens, Campbell, Stewart, WPTZ reporter Alison Carey and WPTZ videographer Brooke Mayette.

Trial one involved a “normal hazard,” where the trooper was dressed in clothing that was neither dark-colored nor brightly colored.

It was almost dark when Carey began the second trial at 9:42 p.m.

As drivers’ stopping times can be affected by their ages, Stewart recorded my age, 23, and Carey’s, 22.

NERVOUSNESS

The first three trials measured Carey’s stopping distances for pedestrians dressed in “normal clothing,” a reflective vest and dark clothing.

After she was finished, I moved from the rear passenger’s seat to the driver’s seat and prepared to stop for Hayes, Moran or Houle.

As he had done in December, Campbell didn’t tell me what kind of hazard to expect — just that I should brake as soon as I saw it.

But I knew roughly what to expect, and I was curious to see how that would affect my stopping time.

I certainly wasn’t as nervous this time around as I was in December.

Regardless, Campbell told me I still drove slower, gripped the steering wheel more tightly than I would in a non-testing situation and exhibited other signs of nervousness.

DRIVING IN HEELS

I pulled away from the shoulder of the road and drove out into the darkness.

My speed hovered between 10 and 15 mph.

The weather was muggy and humid, causing the windshield to fog up. I made use of the defroster. A light rain fell intermittently as the experiment progressed.

I was wearing three-inch — but fairly sturdy — heeled shoes for the tests, which Campbell noted are not the safest type of shoes to wear while driving.

After I drove around a curve in the road on my first trial, I saw the glint of metal up ahead and slammed on the brakes as fast as I could.

I had seen my headlights reflecting off of the metal of the bicycle. But it wasn’t anything drivers traveling in a real-life situation could have missed, especially if they weren’t expecting it.

Campbell used a range finder to measure the distance between the Grand Am and Houle, who was dressed in black clothing and holding a bike beside him with no lights on it.

From the 570 feet I stopped away from him, he was just a faint outline of a person amidst the darkness.

CONDITION OF DRIVER

Campbell emphasized that our tests were performed with sober, alert, attentive drivers who were expecting a hazard.

“This isn’t you driving down the road from work to home at the end of your day and you’ve got a million things going through your mind and you’re doing 55/60 miles an hour.

“This is somebody that’s going to be doing 10 miles an hour on a road where they know something is out there that they have to stop for.”

Thus, our results would be much different in a real-life situation, Campbell said.

And drivers who are tired, drunk, impaired by drugs, have poor eyesight or are speeding would have even an poorer perception-reaction time and a longer stopping distance.

It’s important to distinguish between the “point of perception” and the “first possible point of perception,” Campbell said.

There is usually a noticeable difference between the two, he said.

“The first point of possible perception is where a driver should or could first see a hazard if he or she was completely focused on the road and the road alone.”

Getting in the way of the driver’s reaction at the first possible point of perception are the distractions that are ever-present when we drive, Campbell said.

‘COMMON SENSE’

Beyond the law, State Police urge people to use common sense while walking, running, skating or skateboarding, Coryea said.

“Pedestrians, runners and bicyclists should not assume that just because they can see a vehicle that the person operating that vehicle can also see them,” the lieutenant said.

“They should try to make eye contact with the individual driving that vehicle to ensure they’re seen.”

“Reflective clothing is the way to go,” Campbell said. “You’re going to be seen much quicker, much easier by any oncoming traffic.”

State Police advise pedestrians against wearing earphones or anything else that will dull their level of alertness while walking or exercising in the vicinity of a road, Coryea said.

State Police recommend a strobe light for bicycles rather than a steady light, Campbell said.

“It’s just like anything else. It’s like driving in a snowstorm,” Campbell said. “The best way to avoid to getting into a collision when you’re driving in a snowstorm is to not drive in a snowstorm.”

CLOSE CALLS

Beyond the statistics, close calls that could have been accidents have been a lesson in the importance of vigilance to most drivers at one time or another.

The day of the test, Houle encountered a young bicyclist who was seemingly oblivious to what was going on around him.

“On the way to work, a juvenile on a bicycle, not holding onto the handlebars, goes through the stop sign, has his earbuds in, doesn’t see me. I have to slam on my brakes to avoid him,” Houle said.

“That’s the point that he recognized I was there.”

And State Police say there’s no reason not to wear a helmet, regardless of the biker’s age or how “uncool” people may feel they look if they wear protective headgear.

“If you have a helmet on, your chances of surviving a collision involving a bike — even if it’s just a bike into a tree or a bike where you fall over — your chances of being injured are much greater without a helmet than if you’re wearing a helmet, coolness aside,” Campbell said.

EVER-PRESENT DANGERS

Our experiment ended shortly after 11 p.m.

As I was driving home, I saw two young men walking along the side of Rugar Street in the City of Plattsburgh, dressed in dark clothing. The experiment was fresh in my mind, and I was still on high alert for hazards.

Although my level of alertness is still probably higher than drivers that haven’t been fortunate enough to participate in pedestrian visibility testing, it isn’t as good as it was those two nights.

And since the experiment, while driving on Miller Street in the City of Plattsburgh, I have seen three young bicyclists without helmets riding together against traffic and a man rollerblading in the middle of the street without a helmet, talking on a cell phone — all after dark.

Email Felicia Krieg: fkrieg@pressrepublican.comTwitter: @FeliciaKrieg

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STATE VEHICLE AND TRAFFIC LAWS

Troop Traffic Supervisor Technical Sergeant Brian Goetz provided a summary of Vehicle and Traffic law sections 1156 (a), 1156 (b), 1236 and 1146.

• Pedestrians should always make use of a sidewalk if there is one in the area they are walking. If no sidewalk is available, pedestrians should walk on the left side of the road, opposing traffic.

• When a vehicle approaches, pedestrians are required to move as far left as possible.

• Bicyclists and inline skaters must position themselves as far to the right side of the road as possible.

• Bicyclists and inline skaters are subject to the same traffic laws as cars. For example, bicyclists and inline skaters are required to stop at stop signs and stop at red light, just like motor vehicles. "A lot of times you'll see people on bicycles, they'll ride right through those intersections," Goetz said.

• From a half hour before sunrise and a half hour after sunset, bicycles must be equipped with a white headlight that is visible from at at least 50 feet away and a red tail light visible from at least 300 feet away.

• New Yorkers ages 1 to 14 are required by law to wear a helmet while biking. "It doesn't make it any safer that once they hit 14 years old they don't wear a bicycle helmet anymore," Goetz said. "We recommend that anyone operating a bicycle wear a bike helmet. It's only going to protect them."

For more information, go to www.safeny.ny.gov/peds-ndx.htm

STOPPING DISTANCES

Listed here is the distance between the car and the acting pedestrian or bicyclist at the time Carey or I stopped. The conditions affecting the stopping time are in parentheses. Carey did the first three trials and I did the last five.

Trial 1: 300 ft. (pedestrian in "normal" clothing, neither dark nor brightly colored)

Trial 2: 378 ft. (pedestrian in reflective vest)

Trial 3: 60 ft. (pedestrian in dark clothing)

Trial 4: 570 ft. (bicycle with no lights)

Trial 5: 660 ft. (bicycle with a steady red tail-light)

Trial 6: 690 ft. (bicycle with a white strobe headlight)

Trial 7: 690 ft. (bicycle with a steady white headlight)

Trial 8: 720 ft. (bicycle with a strobe headlight)

The distance a driver travels a high speeds is a sobering reminder for drivers to keep their eyes on the road, Campbell said.

"Somebody driving down the road, they're reaching for a CD or texting or changing the radio, two seconds pass as you're doing 30 miles an hour and you're going 44 feet when you're not looking at the road. A lot can jump out in that time."

DISTANCE TRAVELED

The following shows how many feet a motor vehicle will travel in one second when driving at a specific speed.

Speed (miles per hour)      Distance traveled (feet per second)

30 mph            44 ft.

40 mph           58 ft.

50 mph           73 ft.

60 mph          88 ft.

70 mph        102 ft.

80 mph        117 ft.