Traffic Safety Concerns Persist for Some Students
Issue   |   Tue, 11/14/2017 - 21:57
Photo courtesy of Faith Wen ’20
Route 9 and South Pleasant Street are public roadways on which some students have experienced vehicle accidents. Amherst College Police Chief John Carter said his department has taken measures to improve safety on these streets.

During a late afternoon last October, Lizzie Lacy ’19 was crossing Route 9 near Valentine Dining Hall when she saw a car approaching. The driver, a student at UMass Amherst, slowed down.

“I thought he was stopping, since he saw me,” she said.

But he didn’t, and she was hit, going over the hood of the car to the side of the road.

The driver “seemed really frazzled,” Lacy recalled, and pulled into the next parking lot “freaking out” and asking her if she needed to go to a hospital. But she felt that “there was nothing immediately wrong with me,” and it was an accident, so she didn’t consider calling campus or town police.

The driver told Lacy that the glare of the setting sun had compromised his vision when she crossed. Lacy said she replied that she understood the issue, adding that he should still have accounted for that while driving.

Later, however, Lacy’s hip began hurting and remained painful for a few months, which affected her performance as a runner on the women’s cross country team.

Traffic Accidents

According to Amherst College Police Chief John Carter, the majority of the traffic accidents on campus are “parking-lot-type accidents” — slow and easy to report.

From 2014 and 2016, campus police received 129 total calls involving vehicle accidents. Each year, Fayerweather Drive saw the highest number of accidents, excluding off-campus accidents involving pool vehicles. The First-Year Quad is another location where accidents frequently occur, with a total of 10 throughout the time period.

Between 2014 and 2017, Amherst Town Police also received 22 calls requesting their assistance in motor vehicle accidents on South Pleasant Street and 131 for service involving motor vehicle accidents on College Street, the portion of Route 9 next to the campus.

Emilee Hammons ’20 was hurrying from Keefe Campus Center to class in Clark House on Sept. 20 this year when she was hit by a car driving west down Route 9. She crossed the street directly in front of Clark House, a location between two crosswalks.

“It was mostly me being lazy, and I was in a hurry, so I didn’t go to the crosswalk,” Hammons said. “... I stopped and I hesitated because I was waiting for a break in traffic, and this lady going west-bound had come to almost a complete stop. When I saw [the break] I was going to go across, so I didn’t double check. It was just weird timing where that lady pulled out at the same time I stepped onto the road so she hit me with her car.”

Hammons lost consciousness, but regained it a few seconds later on the ground with her belongings scattered. Her friend, who was with her at the time, suggested calling student-run EMT service ACEMS, but Hammons wanted to attend class.

Instead, a witness to the accident called ACEMS, ACPD (Amherst College Police Department) and Amherst town police. Hammons eventually went to Cooley Dickinson Hospital, where she received X-ray and CT scans since she had hit her head. She had a contusion in her foot, difficulty walking and severe back pain after the accident.

While Hammons is receiving help from the college’s financial aid office with medical costs, she said she believed the school could offer even more resources when it comes to dealing with aspects of accidents like insurance paperwork and answering questions about what to do after an accident.

Hammons said that when she went to campus police for help in filling out paperwork and to ask questions, a member of the department told her that, “because technically I stepped off of our campus and onto Route 9, it becomes the Amherst Police Department’s jurisdiction and not ours so ‘we can’t really help you.’” As a student strained for time, Hammons has not been able to “figure out where to go and who to talk to in the town of Amherst about this,” and has been dealing with the issue on her own.

Niamani Williams ’20 has also had several near misses while crossing both Route 9 and Main Street. Though she was using Route 9 crosswalks, she was still almost hit twice.

“I had pressed the light because I had already almost gotten hit too many times and there was a car pretty far away so I was about to step to walk and they literally sped up,” Williams said. “They knew they were in the wrong because as they went by they were like, ‘I’m so sorry.’ After that car went, I was actually halfway in the street and there was someone in an Amherst College van that proceeded to turn and almost hit me.”

Williams lives in Tyler Dormitory and must cross Route 9 and Main Street on her way to the central part of campus.
One possible solution she suggested is to add more lighting on the paths through town that students take to get to off-campus dormitories, which she said are currently poorly lit.

While the school does not have jurisdiction over areas within the town, Carter said that ACPD has tried to make improvements to these roadways to ensure students’ safety as they travel to and from off-campus areas.

“We have worked with the town to understand and improve the paths our students take,” Carter said in a separate email interview. “In terms of the Hill Dorms [Tyler, Marsh and Plimpton Houses], we have increased lighting along the path that leads down to Main Street by the police station, there is a crosswalk right there, and then a sidewalk that brings one to Alumni Lot. There are also blue light phones along that path. As for the Triangle Dorms, there are sidewalks leading to the crosswalks at the lights, which are controlled by request buttons.”

Police Action

Over the years, Carter said, the college has also taken steps to make the two public roadways that cross through campus — College Street and South Pleasant Street — more safe by enhancing lighting, raising crosswalks to make pedestrians more visible to drivers and installing flashing pedestrian lights.

These changes occurred due to concern over general safety and recognition that Amherst’s campus “encloses two public roadways [that] our students cross a lot to get to residence halls and athletic fields,” Carter said.

Both of these streets are under the jurisdiction of town police, but when traffic accidents occur, ACPD will respond if the person involved is a member of the Amherst community, Carter said.

“We go over and make sure we support our community member,” he said.

“When we get involved, regardless of where the accident happens, we’re able to offer a lot through the college, Student Affairs, health services [and] transport by ambulance,” Carter added, but usually only if the accident is within the town of Amherst or at UMass Amherst.

It is critical, however, for people — especially students — to report traffic accidents, Carter said.

In the last two years, the town of Amherst has also pursued traffic safety enforcement by using undercover officers to activate crosswalk lights and step out onto the road. If a driver didn’t stop, a uniformed officer would stop the car and issue a citation for the crossing violation.

It is important, however, for pedestrians using crosswalks to remain “careful about the vehicles,” Carter said. “A driver may not see you, or they may not be able to stop in time, so it’s always important that you as a pedestrian continue to watch the cars.”

Improving Visibility

Though Lacy said traffic safety is “pretty good,” she has taken precautions since her accident to ensure her visibility when crossing roads.

“What I’ve started doing now, is putting my hand up and making sure they see me,” she said. “It might be overkill, but I don’t know if there’s anything you can put there to make them stop.” This is a measure against the many drivers who, as she said, “just barrel through” Route 9.

Lacy added that it can be difficult to cross South Pleasant Street near Morgan Hall and across the Triangle, because drivers sometimes do not stop. “I don’t expect them to stop anymore,” Lacy said. “[The responsibility] is definitely on the pedestrian here.”

The campus could improve visibility for both drivers and pedestrians by making areas better lit, she said, allowing drivers to see pedestrians better.

Monica Nimmagadda ’18, who was involved in an off-campus accident in a dimly lit area, also said lights are key. “If you go down Route 116 [Pleasant Street], it’s super dark,” she said. “I live in Chapman, which is the dorm across Route 116, and sometimes people go really fast down the hill. Even coming from Chapman, the cars go really fast, and people sometimes don’t stop at the crosswalk … Chapman Dorm needs lights out there.”

Carter, however, said the illumination on Route 9 is “probably about five times the standard.” If lighting is made brighter, negative impacts could occur, he said, such as bright spheres of light on either side of the road but blind spots in the middle. He acknowledged that on rainy nights, visibility decreases considerably for drivers, and “there’s really not much that can be done” except the measures that have already been carried out.

Designing for Safety

Part of the Office of Design and Construction’s planning process, Carter said, involves anticipating how changes will impact pedestrian and vehicle traffic. Roads on campus, for example, may feel smaller than roads out in town.

“That’s by design, because a smaller road tends to calm traffic and make people drive slower,” he said.

The college has installed stop signs and raised crosswalks in locations with heavy foot traffic, such as near the Powerhouse.
If there is a need to make more improvements on the public roadways surrounding campus, Carter said, campus police will work with the town of Amherst to make those improvements. Currently, however, campus police has no significant plans for improving traffic safety.

With the construction of the Greenway dormitories, which began in March 2015, the college has begun to add more walking paths around campus. The addition of the new dorms has added pedestrian-only paths that connect various areas of the campus together. Continued work on the Greenway project on the east side of campus will allow for more accessibility while on foot, Director of Design and Construction/Facilities Tom Davies said in an email.

While most busy areas provide a separate pedestrian path, there are some places that do not, such as the walk down Barrett Hill Road to Beneski or along Fayerweather Drive, which is behind the academic building.

The Office of Design and Construction ensures that sidewalks around construction areas are available, Davies said.

Carter said that campus police continuously watch for issues on a broad range of safety, especially around pedestrian safety. Whenever the college redesigns a roadway or parking lot on campus, “We look at it … understanding that our pedestrians and our cars share the road,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Monica Nimmagadda's name as Monica Nimmheadda. The article was updated at 12:08 p.m. on Nov. 17 to correct the spelling error.