Augusta’s Police Chief Jared Mills, left, and Director of Public Works Lesley Jones talks about “see me flags” during a recording session for “Chat With The Chief” Thursday at intersection of Mt. Vernon Avenue with State, Bond and Boothby streets in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — City officials got a first-hand look Thursday at why people on foot may need some help safely crossing the street while demonstrating how pedestrians should use orange flags at crosswalks.

At least three motorists continued to drive on without stopping despite City Engineer Tyler Pease waving one of the flags while standing in a crosswalk trying to cross Mt. Vernon Avenue at its busy intersection with Bond, Boothby and State streets.

In addition, Police Chief Jared Mills and Public Works Director Lesley Jones, both in brightly-colored safety vests, stood nearby watching it all unfold. Mills caught up to one of the drivers, a taxi-cab operator who stopped in a nearby parking lot and gave him a verbal warning for not stopping at the crosswalk.

Eventually drivers in both lanes did stop, allowing Pease to cross, as part of a demonstration of how the new flags are meant to work. It was filmed for an installment in Mills’ occasional, online video series “Chat with the Chief.”

Jones said the flags are part of ongoing efforts to improve pedestrian safety in the city. She said the city is trying different things, in hopes the variety of methods of grabbing the attention of potentially distracted drivers will make it safer to cross streets.

The city plans to try out pedestrian flags at three crosswalks on heavily traveled roads with crosswalks that don’t already have flashing beacons at them. In addition to the one on Mt. Vernon Avenue and Bond Street, they will be placed at the intersection of Water and Bond streets, and on Eastern Avenue at Penley Street.

A tub of “see me flags” at the intersection of Mt. Vernon Avenue with State, Bond and Boothby streets in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Each of the crosswalks will start with six flags mounted on small wooden handles, on each side of the street, sitting in small containers by the crossing. The idea is for pedestrians to pick one up, step up to the crosswalk, look both ways and wave the flag to help get the attention of motorists, and then cross the street. Pedestrians are asked to leave the flags in the container on the opposite side of the street after crossing for someone else to use.

“One of the issues we’re having is motorists don’t always see pedestrians,” Jones said. “So this is something a pedestrian can do. Motorists have a responsibility to stop if I’m in a crosswalk, but as a pedestrian, I also have a responsibility to let drivers know I want to cross. It’s a two-way street.”

Mills said motorists have become increasingly distracted, paying attention to their phones or other things instead of their driving. He said distracted driving seems worse recently since more drivers have returned to the roads as the coronavirus pandemic has waned.

Mills speculated that may be in part because they haven’t driven much in so long, and potentially because they knew during the pandemic police were less likely to pull motorists over for traffic violations.

Augusta is not the first to try arming pedestrians with flags in the battle for motorists’ attention.

Jones said Patrick Adams, the state’s active transportation planner, said the flags have been used elsewhere and worked well in some places, but didn’t take off in others.

The city’s proposals to improve pedestrian safety preceded the tragic deaths of three local residents, two women and the 1-year-old granddaughter of one of the women. They were struck and killed while walking on Cony Road last month. Officials are considering adding a sidewalk to that section of Cony Road. Mills said Thursday the cause of that crash is still under investigation.

In 2019 a Maine Department of Transportation study prompted by concern over accidents involving pedestrians recommended the city take multiple steps to improve the visibility of pedestrian crossings.

The report urged the city to make pedestrian crossings more visible. Augusta officials said then they were already taking some of the recommended steps and would partner with the state Department of Transportation to study and then implement changes meant to make pedestrians safer.

Jones said other steps taken to try to increase pedestrian safety include putting flashing lights at some crosswalks which pedestrians activate to alert motorists that someone is crossing the street. Another step was enhanced striping to try to increase the visibility of crosswalks.

Also, in a project involving the state transportation department, sign decals have been placed at three other crosswalks — including one downtown on Water Street, urging pedestrians to stop, look, and wave — in another effort to try to encourage pedestrians to get the attention of motorists before crossing.

Pease said the temporary decals stuck on the street at some crosswalks, using materials donated by 3M, are “serving as a bit of a reminder to pedestrians to kind of pause, take a look, make sure people are paying attention to stop, and just give a nice wave, a thank you.”

A motorcyclist rolls down Water Street past the “Stop Look Wave” sticker at the crosswalk during a recording session for “Chat With The Chief” on Thursday in downtown Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

While state law requires motorists to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, Mills said, it also requires pedestrians to show their intent to cross the street, so motorists know to stop for them. He said the flags could help make it clearer to drivers when a pedestrian is looking to cross the street, instead of simply standing in or near the crosswalk but not intending to cross.

“What I think (making the pedestrian flags available) does is, if used properly, it takes the guesswork out of it. It absolutely locks that driver in to having to stop,” Mills said, adding there should be no excuse for not stopping from a driver if the pedestrian is waving a flag. “It’s an educational campaign, including for pedestrians. Because part of the Maine law is you actually have to show intent to cross the roadway.”

Jones and Mills acknowledged one concern is people may steal the flags, as well as the potential for all flags to end up on the same side of the street.

Jones said pedestrians could be asked to keep an eye out for the latter situation and if they see flags only on one side carry them across the street to replenish the empty container. She said city workers could also keep an eye on the flags and redistribute them from one side of the street to the other.

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