AUGUSTA — Chuck Mahaleris was working in Portland when he got the call every parent dreads.

His teenage daughter, Nina, was crossing Bangor Street in Augusta in mid-March to get an ice cream at Dairy Queen.

On the phone was his young son, struggling through tears to say that his sister had been struck by a car.

“You can imagine the panic going on inside me,” Mahaleris told Augusta City Councilors at a meeting last week. “Her head bounced off the front of the car. She had to be (flown by helicopter) to Lewiston. It ended up being a skull fracture and concussion. All in all, my daughter was very lucky.”

But Mahaleris said not every Augusta pedestrian who, in his words, “meets the ugly side of a car,” has been as lucky as his 15-year-old daughter, who he said is now fine.

Just a few days after Nina was struck, 81-year-old Ruth Epperson was walking on the sidewalk on North Belfast Avenue when she was hit by a Jeep driven by a 24-year-old Windsor man. She, too, was taken from the accident scene by helicopter to the hospital, but never regained consciousness and died about a week later.

The accidents prompted Mahaleris, as well as Lynn Duplessis, a resident with visual impairment who frequently negotiates the busy city streets with her 12-year-old guide dog, Queeg, to meet with councilors Thursday night to talk about pedestrian safety.

They’re looking for ways to prevent more tragedies.

“It is especially difficult to remain safe on Augusta’s streets” for someone with visual impairment, said Duplessis, first vice president of the Pine Tree Guide Dog Users. “I’m extremely capable of getting around the city with my cane or guide dog. The problem is the drivers. They pay absolutely no attention.

“When pedestrians are crossing, the drivers don’t stop. They’re on the phone or they just have tunnel vision and blow right through.”

City officials are sympathetic to those concerns, but said resources are tight and they’re not sure what the city can do to improve pedestrian safety.

“We hear about it all the time; we hear about the near misses, the hits, the fatalities, and we do take it seriously,” said Public Works Director Lesley Jones, who noted that Epperson was her sister’s mother-in-law. “It’s difficult. It does hit close to home. We’ve got (flashing lights), improved crosswalks, better signage.

“It’s sad to say, but I think a lot of it is just driver inattention. We as a society have to put down our cellphones and pay attention and realize a vehicle is a powerful thing. At public works we’re doing what we can, but it comes down to resources. It comes down to money. It comes down to awareness. The more the budget gets stretched, the less we can do, effectively.”

Police Chief Robert Gregoire said officers work hard to enforce speed laws, making some 4,000 traffic stops each year, but can’t be everywhere, all the time, especially with other competing demands and other crimes requiring a response.

What’s needed is a change of attitude, he said.

“People are in a hurry,” Gregoire said. “If we want to know who is at fault, go home and look in the mirror. Because at one time or another, we’re all in a hurry.”

Gregoire also noted in some cases pedestrians contribute to the problem — by not crossing at crosswalks, or crossing the street while impaired by drugs or alcohol.

Among the cuts proposed in the budget being debated by councilors is a police patrol position, although the total proposed police department budget is up by $167,000, or 4.3 percent.

Councilor Darek Grant said complaints about pedestrian safety are one of the most common complaints he hears from constituents. He’s familiar with the issue himself. He’d like to take his daughter with him when he walks from their home in the Mayfair neighborhood to the area around the Kennebec Arsenal on the Kennebec River. But that would mean crossing busy, in some places four-lane, Hospital Street.

“I don’t dare take my daughter there very often because it’s too dangerous to cross,” Grant said. “It frustrates me. People blow through our community so fast. We have a beautiful community, with trails and parks, and people love to get out and enjoy the outdoors, but too often we’re limited because we have to get across four lanes of traffic.

“What can we, as a city, do to make this community more pedestrian friendly?”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

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