William Linkens sees it all the time.
A pedestrian focused on a smart phone as they approach a busy street.
“I see so many people come into the crosswalk—or maybe not even the crosswalk, just to cross the street—and their head never looks up,” said Linkens, a 12-year veteran driver of Montgomery County’s Ride On buses.
Ride On is at the heart of a safety campaign that Montgomery County officials hope will prevent pedestrian fatalities on county roads.
Two Ride On buses parked on East Montgomery Avenue in Rockville Town Center on Tuesday morning bore the campaign slogan, “Hey you, I’m looking at you!” above a pair of eyes.
The eyes–two sets on two different versions of the bus-sized ads—belong to one current and one former student at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. The students were part of developing the campaign that promotes safety tips such as encouraging pedestrians to make eye contact with drivers whenever possible when crossing a street.
The campaign’s launch comes on the eve of the busy holiday shopping season, a time of year that is the most dangerous for pedestrians, officials said.
“November and December are the months where more pedestrians are hit than any other months,” said Al Roshdieh, deputy director of the county’s Department of Transportation. “Last year, in these two months, there were over 430 pedestrian crashes in the Washington region. Now, as [the year] enters these winter months and daylight saving has ended, shorter days mean pedestrians and cyclists are on the street more often in the dark.”
Pedestrian safety is not just the responsibility of pedestrians, officials and drivers said.
“A lot of people in cars are just as distracted as pedestrians,” Linkens said.
“They’re more distracted,” Ride On driver Harry Lewis said. “They’ve got radios, they’re talking on the phone, they’re flipping through at the light. I know they came out with the [state ban on hand-held cell phones while driving] and everything, but there isn’t really a whole lot to hold it down.”
County officials hope a combination of pedestrian visibility and driver vigilance will continue a trend of declining pedestrian fatalities since County Executive Isiah Leggett made the issue a priority during his first term in office.
“Both pedestrians and drivers have important responsibilities,” Leggett said. Pedestrians should make eye contact with drivers during daylight hours and wear reflective items or flashing lights that make them more visible at night, he said. Drivers should watch for pedestrians and obey all traffic laws.
In 2008, when the county launched a pedestrian safety initiative of traffic engineering, citizen education and law enforcement, there were 19 pedestrian fatalities in the county, Roshdieh said.
“Fatalities have been declining every year since,” he said. “Last year, we had 11. This year, to date, we have had five.”
One of those five was on Oct. 31 when Christina Morris-Ward, a 15-year-old sophomore at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown was struck and killed by a car while trying to cross Germantown Road on her way to school.
While county fire and rescue officials attended a vigil for Morris-Ward at Seneca Valley High on Nov. 5, another pedestrian was struck just a few blocks from the school, said county fire Chief Richard Bowers.
“Our job in public safety is to prevent the 911 call,” Bowers said. The Ride On bus ads are a way “to keep getting the message out over and over again,” he said.
Bowers recounted another message, by Christina Morris-Ward’s mother, Gwendolyn Ward, to students at the vigil for her daughter: “Look out for those that are not looking out for you.”
Montgomery County police officers will be distributing 9,000 reusable bright yellow shopping bags at shopping centers and districts around the county as part of the county police department’s “Shop With a Cop” safe shopping initiative, county police Chief J. Thomas Manger said. The bright yellow bags have a drawing of a pair of eyes above the slogan “Can you see me now?”
Linkens, the bus driver, said he hopes the "Eyes" campaign will raise awareness, as well as visibility, among pedestrians.
“I think anything that makes you think about it is a good idea,” he said.