Alex Beld contributed to this post.
A momentary lapse at a challenging intersection in Neenah resulted in the death of a 77-year-old retired neurologist, but no citations against the motorist who hit him while turning through a crosswalk on N. Commercial Street.
William Wanamaker died in an all-too familiar scenario – knocked over by a motorist turning right at an intersection without ensuring the path was clear. The crash exemplifies the need for motorists to check their blind spots when making turns at intersections; and for people walking to be more attentive and watchful.
The right hook – when a turning vehicle cuts off and hits a pedestrian or cyclist, is one of the five most common crash types that injure or kill people on foot or bicycle, according to state and national transportation studies.
Less than two months after Wanamaker died in Neenah, a 59-year-old man riding a bicycle encountered a semi-tractor trailer making a right turn at a busy thoroughfare in Waukesha County. The collision killed the cyclist, who had been positioned to the right of the semi, in a traffic lane marked for right turns only.
In the Wanamaker case, the crash report prepared by the Wisconsin State Patrol listed failing to yield the right-of-way as a factor in the collision, but the status of the traffic lights and lack of witness to the incident left some question as to whether Wanamaker had a walk signal as he stepped into the crosswalk. The light controlling traffic on E. Forest Ave. had turned green, according to the crash report.
Wisconsin State Patrol Trooper Nicholas Erickson prepared the report and said no citations would be pursued.
Wanamaker served as a medical officer in the Air Force during the Vietnam War and helped found the Green Bay Botanical Garden, while he worked as a neurologist in the Fox Valley. He retired in 1998, but stayed active in his community and took walks nearly every day.
His final journey ended about 3:20 p.m. on May 31, just a few steps into the marked crosswalk at the intersection of N. Commercial St. and E. Forest Ave.
Mark Kellerman, 66, told investigators he waited for the traffic light on E. Forest Ave. to turn green, and looked to his right and left before starting to turn right, northbound onto N. Commercial St. He bumped Wanamaker with the passenger side of his car and knocked the older man to the pavement. Wanamaker died of head injuries, one of 25 people killed while walking in Wisconsin this year.
“We were shocked and saddened,” said Thomas Wanamaker, one of the victim’s three children.
A button activates the walk light for people crossing N. Commercial St., and investigators were not able to determine whether Wanamaker had pressed the button or if the walk signal had kicked on before he started to cross. The 77-year-old had suffered two strokes, and walked somewhat unsteadily, according to his son.
Wanamaker died in a dangerous interaction involving people walking and motorists attempting to make right-hand turns at marked intersections. While being watchful for traffic approaching from the left, motorists often fail to see people walking or biking from their right.
The design of the intersection, with E. Forest and N. Commercial intersecting at a severe angle, presents additional sight line problems.
It appears Wanamaker’s death could have been avoided if the driver had done what is required under Wisconsin state law: yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk.
The victim here is certainly not to blame. Drivers need to be watching for and expecting people walking into crosswalks. For those walking, it’s important to make eye contact with drivers or wave an outstretched arm to indicate you are crossing before entering the street.
The Share & Be Aware Program directed by the Wisconsin DOT Bureau of Transportation Safety encourages drivers to drive at or below the speed limit and yield at a distance that allows people in other lanes to see and yield to those who are walking.
Being visible to inattentive drivers is not the responsibility of pedestrians, but wearing light-colored clothing and standing clear of objects that can obscure the driver’s view helps reduce the risk of a crash and injury.
In 2013, 81 percent of pedestrians involved in a crash were in a crosswalk or the street. Pedestrians above the age of 75 are the most likely to be killed when involved in a crash with a vehicle.
Last year, 55 pedestrians were killed, a 22 percent increase from the 45 killed in 2014. Improvements to pedestrian safety have been made in engineering, education, enforcement and emergency response, with the goal of reducing these numbers.
The average number of pedestrians injured or killed has declined over the years. In the 1970s more than 120 pedestrians were killed on a yearly basis in Wisconsin, by the 1980s the average dropped closer to 90 and the average continues to decrease. At the same time, there has been an increase in both vehicles in the road and people walking in urban areas. What hasn’t changed is that most of these fatal collisions happen in urban areas.
Our Share & Be Aware Program is one of the biggest programs we run at the Wisconsin Bike Fed. Our regional S&BA staff doesn’t just teach classes for cyclists, we also teach people how to walk safely, work with Drivers Ed instructors, and share safety information throughout the state during late spring, summer and early fall.
While more work to reduce collisions between vehicles and pedestrians is needed, walking remains a healthy option for short travel and exercise. The risk involved is important to be aware of, but should not deter people from enjoying the health benefits of walking.
Our hearts go out to Wanamaker’s friends and family. In an effort to reduce and eventually stop collisions like this, let us slow down and look around when driving and take the time to remember that a life is more important than arriving somewhere quickly.
If you would like to request one of our S&BA Ambassadors for a class or to table an event, make your request online here. We can also give you free safety information to share in your community or with your employer.