OCEAN CITY, N.J. — One evening in late June, John Albert rose to address the Ocean City City Council. He was focused, raw, and grieving for his stepson, Thomas F. Gibbons Jr., 47, an engineer from Lansdale who had died barely a month earlier trying to cross a street in the beach town.
“His job in an international company, Broadcom, was to assess risk,” Albert told the council members, who didn’t dare enforce their three-minute limit for public comment.
“Tom assessed risk at Eighth and Bay Avenue, and was killed," Albert continued. "Because he had the wrong data walking into that intersection.”
“I’m not here for sympathy,” Albert said at the end of his lengthy presentation, which featured a hand-drawn reconfiguration of the intersection, which drivers use as a shortcut to the Ninth Street Bridge. “I’m here for action.”
Albert’s deliberate yet wrenching presentation echoed concerns in other Shore towns, where the hordes of visitors and their overwhelming influx of cars, impatient locals, sun-dizzied beachgoers, oblivious bicyclists, emboldened pedestrians, and the “lead with the stroller” crowd combine to create danger in what should be an idyllic setting.
“You know, take a breath,” said Police Chief Doug Biagi of Ventnor, where the speed limit on Atlantic Avenue one block from the beach was reduced to 25 mph this year, and bike lanes were added. “Slow down.”
Ventnor aspires to the reputation of Longport, known for its zealous police waiting to issue speeding tickets. About 20 speeding tickets were issued last weekend in Ventnor, Biagi said.
In summer, when towns fill up nearly to capacity, the streets carry a toxic brew along with the salt air: Locals are driving with what Biagi calls “muscle memory” from an off-season of cruising down nearly empty streets. Summer people are operating in a kind of La La Land of Jersey Shore vacation, their normal vigilance about safety often left back home.
“It’s a euphoric feeling when you’re down at the Shore in the summer,” Biagi said. “People get lax. The amount of families who lead with their baby carriages — just by the grace of God, [a tragedy] hasn’t happened.”
Tragedy did happen at Eighth and Bay, though, and, as Gibbons’ mother said this week, his family will pay for it forever.
Eighth and Bay, with a view of the new bridge, a traffic light, and a pedestrian crossing signal, one block away from busier Ninth Street, would not appear to be a particularly treacherous street to cross. But a half-dozen of Albert’s neighbors wrote to him describing their close calls.
It was the crossing where on May 24, around 5:30 p.m., a local business owner took her usual left turn heading west on Eighth onto Bay Avenue toward the bridge and struck Gibbons and his wife while their two teenage daughters, lagging behind, could only watch.
Gibbons was taken by helicopter to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic City, where he was pronounced dead three days later. His wife was taken by ambulance and treated for her injuries. The driver, 48, stayed at the scene.
“This is probably the most dangerous corner in Ocean City,” Albert said. “By the time she saw Tommy, she hadn’t even applied the brake.”
The accident is still under investigation by the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office.
“My specialty isn’t traffic management,” Albert, a retired periodontist, said on that Thursday night when he spoke both to the City Council and later to Mayor Jay Gillian in the hallway.
“It looks like a pastoral little setting," he told Gillian. “It’s a kill zone.”
In West Cape May on May 20, a bicyclist was struck and fatally injured by a NJ Transit bus at Broadway and York Avenue. Efterpi “Tepi” Hines, 56, of Cranbury, died at Cape Regional Medical Center.
Eloise Boccella, of Cape May and Swarthmore, noted that the street where Hines was struck was designated by the city as “one that cyclists should use caution, rather than one designated to avoid.”
“This incident did not seem to influence any movement to change street designations or to move forward with the establishment of safe bike travel in a small city with an excessive number of cars and cyclists that share the same small streets,” Boccella said in an email. “Cape May is a beautiful city that needs to work harder at keeping their cyclists safe.”
In Margate, Marc Rose has similar frustration with local officials, who listen to his complaints about speeding outside his home on Amherst Avenue, but have dismissed his calls for stop signs, speed bumps, or stepped-up police enforcement of the 25 mph limit.
“On my section of Amherst between Jerome and Washington, it’s a straightaway,” Rose said. “There’s no stop signs, and people just gun it. I’ve been here four years and have yet to ever see a ticket.”
Like Eighth and Bay, Amherst Avenue is a pretty street with views of the bay. It leads to the bars and restaurants of Margate in one direction, and to the turn for Jerome Avenue and the Margate bridge in the other. The speeding starts at 6 a.m., Rose said, with delivery trucks flying by.
“People use this street as a cut-through all the time,” he said. “I don’t mind the volume. It’s a speeding issue. I just want common sense, and I don’t want anybody to get hurt."
Albert, pouring his grief into solutions, proposed a fix for the deadly corner: Employ a middle turning lane controlled by a turning arrow, and alter the pedestrian signal so that it only allows crossing when there’s no left turn allowed by cars.
“When they can turn, let them turn, it’s fine, but just don’t have anybody in the crosswalk,” he explained.
As it is, a pedestrian who presses the crosswalk button can receive the white pedestrian signal and a voiced and visual countdown, but there’s nothing to signal to a turning car that they might encounter someone in the crosswalk.
“When you see that bridge, the person who is heading toward that bridge has an emotional distraction,” Albert said. “They’re excited. They diverted from Ninth Street. They’re going to hit that bridge shortly. They’re making that left turn.”
Albert outlined the various distractions present at the intersection, which at dusk sports a lovely sky and an expansive view of the rising bridge over the bay. But shadows from big buildings to the south make the intersection tricky. To the north, it’s small-town Ocean City.
Gillian told Albert the city would address the problem right away, but said Bay Avenue is a county road. He later bemoaned the habit of pedestrians who walk into intersections knowing they have the right of way and cars must stop for them, but without sufficient caution.
“I feel for him,” Gillian said of Albert. “The biggest problem we have is that law, where all cars have to stop for pedestrians. It had good intentions, but has caused more problems.”
The law is known as Casey’s Law, named for Casey Feldman, 21, who was struck and killed at another seemingly benign Ocean City intersection, 14th and Central, in July 2009.