Press-Republican

January 6, 2013

After dark, use headlights and your head

By FELICIA KRIEG
Press-Republican

---- — RAY BROOK — I drove down the dark road at 10 mph, ready to slam on the brakes as soon as I saw a pedestrian in my headlights.

New York State Troop B Bureau of Criminal Investigation Investigator Michael Campbell sat next to me, preparing to measure the distance between my vehicle and the trooper posing as a person walking on the dead-end road in Ray Brook after dark.

And photographer/videographer Rob Fountain was alert in the back seat, capturing the events as they unfolded.

FATAL ACCIDENTS

A quadruple fatal accident in November 2011, when two pedestrians and two teens in a car lost their lives, prompted the Press-Republican to ask State Police to conduct a pedestrian-safety experiment to use in a news story and in a video, both aimed to raise public awareness.

The four young people’s lives briefly converged just before 5 p.m. that day, when a car driven by Brandon Sorrell, 17, struck two international students, Chu “Allen” Xiong of China and Dat T. Ong of Vietnam. Sorrell’s passenger, Samantha Donah, 17, also died.

Police investigation revealed Xiong and Ong were wearing dark clothing and walking with their backs to traffic after dark on Peasleeville Road.

“They’ve got to be in reflective wear. They’ve got to be in bright colors,” said Christol Mastic, Sorrell’s mother, who has been promoting pedestrian safety through a foundation created in her son’s memory. 

“We lost four kids ... Don’t assume the car is going to stop.”

‘TOO LATE TO STOP’

More recently, Charles Signaigo of Plattsburgh was killed when he was struck by a car as he rode his bike across North Bowl Way near Cumberland 12 Cinemas, shortly before 5 p.m. Dec. 4.

He did have working lights fixed on both the front and rear of his bicycle, and they were both on at the time of the accident, Campbell said. The cause of the accident is still under investigation, but the driver of the car, Judith A. Exford, 44, of Morrisonville, told police that by the time she saw Signaigo as she turned from Route 9 onto North Bowl Way, it was too late to stop.

The reality is, the public is not aware of how easy it is for a driver to miss seeing a pedestrian or biker on the road at dusk or after dark.

EXPERIMENT

The conditions were optimal: The Dodge Charger test vehicle I was driving was in top condition with good tires and brakes.

The experiment was conducted along a short stretch of road behind Troop B’s forensic building, which was closed to other traffic.

There would be three trials: one with the “pedestrian” wearing regular-colored clothes, one with reflective garb and a third with dark clothing. 

I didn’t know what to expect because Campbell didn’t tell me where the pedestrians would be standing in the road or what they would be wearing on which trial run — but that was the point. Troopers go through a similar test in their training, said Campbell, who works in Troop B’s Collision Reconstruction Unit.

The road conditions for the test were fair — the road was wet, but it was clear, and there was no ice.

A thin layer of snow coated the grassy area on the sides of the road, and Campbell told me that would be in the pedestrians’ favor, since they are easier to see against a white background.

SURPRISE HAZARD

I put the Charger into drive and started out cautiously into the darkness.

As I came out of a small curve in the road, I saw something ahead and slammed on the brakes. Campbell got out of the car and used a range finder to measure the distance between our car and Trooper Gregory M. Hayes, who was dressed in a gray sweatshirt and khakis, “regular clothes.” I had stopped about 120 feet away from him.

On the second run, where Trooper Kendra L. Moran was wearing reflective clothes, I stopped about 220 feet away from her, a significant improvement.

But I was shocked to realize I had completely missed a second pedestrian, Investigator Brendan Frost. He was dressed in dark clothes and was standing not far from the trooper wearing reflective clothing. The silver reflection from Moran’s garb had caught my eye immediately, and I wasn’t expecting another person to be in the road.

REALITY CHECK

I knew the last trial would be the most difficult and the most unsettling for me because, as the previous run had told me, I wouldn’t see Frost in his dark clothes until I was just a few dozen feet to him. 

By the time my headlights picked him up and I braked, I was only about 70 feet from him. And he was positioned almost in the middle of the road, where he should have been more visible.

I imagined what would happen if I had been driving at a normal speed on dark roads. I know I would have hit him.

“I think what most shocked me,” Rob Fountain said after he’d processed the photos and video from the project, “was (learning) that you drive faster than your headlights.”

And by the time you realize you might hit someone, it’s too late, he said.

SPEED KILLS

After the test was over, Campbell told us how the conditions of our experiment separated it from real world situations.

I was specifically looking for a pedestrian in the road, whereas most drivers aren’t on constant alert for that, so something called perception/reaction time becomes a factor in their stopping distance.

“We had regular clothes at 120 feet. You add perception/reaction and all that stuff in there, at 50 (mph projection), you’re hitting the guy in regular clothes,” Campbell told me.

At 40 mph, a vehicle will cover about 60 feet every second, he said.

“By the time you see it (the hazard) in a lot of places, the hazard has already passed.”

In other words, even within the speed limit, drivers are often driving so fast in the dark that they can’t stop in time to avoid hitting a walker, runner, biker, skateboarder or rollerblader. Drivers who are traveling at a moderate speed when they hit a person or an animal often aren’t even aware of what they hit, Campbell said.

“It happens that quick.”

Email Felicia Krieg: fkrieg@pressrepublican.com

+++++

Drivers often don't realize how much distance a vehicle travels in just a second -- in the time it takes to take eyes off the road just to change the station on the radio or reach for an item on the passenger seat.

The following charts, provided by State Police, show how far a vehicle travels in one second and how much distance is needed to stop once a hazard is spotted. The numbers in the first chart are calculated using a mathematical formula and are exact figures. The stopping distance figures are an approximation because there are several factors that can affect it.

Speed (in mph): Distance Traveled (feet per second)

"Stopping distance" refers to the minimum amount of distance a driver would need to bring the vehicle to a stop at a certain speed.

Speed (mph): Approximate Stopping Distance (feet)

LAWS FOR WALKERS, BIKERS

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

FOUNDATION EFFORTS

The Brandon Sorrell Scholarship Foundation, formed in memory of the teen, who died in November 2011 when his car struck two pedestrians, promotes awareness to both pedestrians and motorists about the dangers of the roadway after dark.

Brandon's mother, Christol Mastic, speaks to students in local schools about the importance of wearing brightly colored clothing when out at dusk or nighttime. She has distributed 190 safety T-shirts so far and plans to give out reflective belts, too.

To set up a presentation, email her at christol@brandonsorrell.com.

Find safety tips, how to contribute to the cost of shirts and belts and more information about the scholarship at www.brandonsorrell.com.