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N.J. drive to curb crosswalk accidents

Undercover police in 15 towns to pose as pedestrians.

Pedestrians leaving the beach in North Wildwood cross the street at the busy intersection at 3rd and JFK Boulevard.
Pedestrians leaving the beach in North Wildwood cross the street at the busy intersection at 3rd and JFK Boulevard.Read more

LONGPORT, N.J. - It's the standard move at the Jersey Shore. The group of beachgoers, trailing kids, boogie boards, wagons, chairs, and strollers, stands at the intersection.

One driver might wave them across.

But do the others stop?

Some pedestrians venture across, only to find themselves stranded in the middle. Others balk and wave the car by.

And others try the run-no-matter-what strategy.

It's all part of the general anarchy that confronts pedestrians and drivers in Shore towns during the summer, a situation that ended tragically July 17 in Ocean City, when Casey Feldman, 21, a Fordham University student from Springfield, Delaware County, was struck and killed at a seemingly placid intersection at 14th and Central Avenue, walking to work at Bob's Grill.

Now, Longport, where 4,000 cars drive up and down Atlantic Avenue on a weekend day, along with 14 other towns in South Jersey - including North Wildwood, Sea Isle City, Ventnor and Ocean City and the inland towns of Cherry Hill, Collingswood, and Pennsauken - will begin using $4,000 grants from the state to place "pedestrian decoys" (read undercover police officers) in crosswalks.

Driver - and, for that matter, pedestrian - beware. That pedestrian entering the crosswalk may be a cop who has the power to issue a $100 ticket (and two points against your driving record). For that matter, it may be somebody's mother, or daughter.

"It's very troubling," said Sue Fischer, director of the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety, which will unveil the decoy program today at two news conferences, one in Cherry Hill and the other in North Wildwood. "We are trying to calm this thing down."

As of Saturday, Fischer said, there had been 102 pedestrian fatalities in New Jersey this year, up from 78 at the same time last year. That number includes Feldman and Alexis Cohen, the American Idol contestant from Allentown killed July 25 in a hit-and-run incident in Seaside Heights. Overall, 21 percent of highway fatalities in New Jersey involve pedestrians, about twice the national average.

Many of the Shore towns have added "Yield to pedestrians" signs in crosswalks and elsewhere, but police officials acknowledge that it's rarely that simple. And the signs may give pedestrians a false sense of security, with the idea that they can enter a crosswalk at any time and expect cars to stop.

"It's a shared responsibility," said Longport Police Chief Scott Porter. Decoys will begin working in the town on Monday and operate on random days over the next few weeks. The move will supplement a bracingly effective speed trap long in place as motorists come off the Somers Point-Longport Bridge.

"You can't jump off the curb and expect people to stop," Porter said. At first, police waiting in cars will pull over motorists and issue warnings spelling out the law governing pedestrians. Eventually, there will be tickets.

Towns taking part in the decoy program are: Cherry Hill, Collingswood, Camden, Pennsauken, and Burlington City, plus North Wildwood, Northfield, Somers Point, Longport, Pleasantville, Vineland, Linwood, Ocean City, Ventnor, and Sea Isle City. The police department from Rowan University and the sheriff's departments from Cape May and Atlantic Counties are also participating.

In Longport, Atlantic Avenue was reduced from four lanes to two, one in each direction, to reduce the "points of contact," Porter said. But the width of the roadway is still the same, and it still takes a long time for beachgoers to get across, especially ones such as the mom who was seen Tuesday linking a stroller and a beach-chair cart together with one arm and trying to keep a darting 3-year-old by her side with the other.

In Jersey, it's plain that the law doesn't reflect the reality. "It's cultural," said Marilyn Fischer of Voorhees. "There's an us-against-them mentality. That has to change."

"Believe it or not, it's a law in Jersey [to yield to pedestrians]," said Fischer, who was crossing Atlantic Avenue at 34th Street in Longport with her two grandchildren, Isabela, 8, and Louis, 6, one chair, two boogie boards, and a skim board. "Not everybody stops. Sometimes one side stops and the other doesn't."

The law states that if a car in front of you is stopped for a pedestrian, you may not pass that car. It also states that a pedestrian may not "suddenly leave a curb" if an approaching car is "so close that it is impossible for the driver to yield."

In North Wildwood this week, Andrea Fortune, 49, walking back from the beach with her daughter and three grandchildren, said other places were more pedestrian-friendly. "We were in the Outer Banks, and they are much more mindful. The cars stop immediately. Here, it all depends on the driver."

But from the driver's perspective, it can sometimes be the pedestrians who are oblivious, balancing surf boards and chairs, walking out from behind parked cars with little kids tumbling behind them, tripping over boogie-board leashes, assuming that being on vacation means they can dispense with the vigilance used at home.

"There are people who think they can just step out into the street and traffic will stop for them," said Maureen Shay, 44, a Margate resident who lives near Pembroke Avenue, a popular beach. "And there are the drivers who try to beat the light."

"You have to be aware of your own safety," she said. "Do you want to be the one who said, you hit me but it's your fault?"

Porter said the burden is still on the pedestrian to enter a crosswalk only when it's safe.

In Ocean City, meanwhile, people are still in shock at Bob's Grill, where Casey Feldman's cousin, who arranged for her to get the job this summer, still works, deeply wounded by the tragedy. Feldman, news editor of the Observer newspaper at Fordham, was described as upbeat, hardworking, and full of ambition, looking toward a career in journalism.

Nobody is yet sure how she ended up dead under an Econoline van, two blocks from work.

Joanne Singer, who lives one house up from the intersection, said the corner was in a state of constant confusion, with stop signs on Central Avenue obscured by tree branches and, two days this week, by an SUV with a roof cargo container parked on Central.

At any given time, motorists seem unsure of who goes first, with pedestrians trying to figure out when it's their turn. Driving through Ocean City, it seems no two intersections are the same. Some are four-way stops. Some have stop signs only in one direction.

"It's really awful," said Singer. "I see people scream at cars. When I walk across, I stare at the drivers." She said she saw people rolling through the stop sign at Central Avenue all day long.

Russell Hendricks, the manager at Bob's, said he still could not understand how the driver of the Econoline van, Anthony Lomonaco, 58, a businessman making a candy delivery, did not see Feldman, already three-quarters of the way across, as she crossed Central Avenue on her way to work. Police issued two citations: failure to yield and careless driving; the case is still under investigation.

"I still don't believe it," said Hendricks. "I go by there every day. And I feel guilty because I gave her the job."