Why do Jersey beachgoers keep walking out into traffic?

Pedestrians cross Atlantic Avenue in Longport. A 2010 New Jersey pedestrian law requires "the driver of a vehicle must stop and stay stopped for a pedestrian crossing the roadway within any marked crosswalk." Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.

LONGPORT, N.J. - It's a typical beach day out on Atlantic Avenue, which means the usual pedestrian chaos. Beachgoers crossing the many streets without traffic lights assume the cars will stop: The 2010 law tells them the vehicles must. Some families lead with the stroller, toddler on the dad's shoulders, an older sibling stumbles, stops and goes back for an errant flip-flop. Boogie boards are used as shields, umbrellas and chairs balanced under arms. Ready, set, cross.

Sometimes the cars stop, sometimes they speed up to get by first. Sometimes one lane stops and the other doesn't. Sometimes pedestrians are caught mid-cross. Sometimes, in Margate or Ventnor, which have two lanes in each direction on Atlantic, the cars come from behind the stopped car and head into the intersection. Sometimes there are rear-end crashes.

This all is driving Longport Mayor Nick Russo nuts. "Whatever happened to look both ways?" he lamented.

Russo wants repeal of the law, passed in April 2010, nine months after Casey Feldman, 21, was struck and killed by a van while crossing on Central Avenue in Ocean City. "We've done a pretty good job of educating drivers," he said. "We need to do better with pedestrians."

At first, Longport targeted drivers, sending officers as pedestrian decoys. But now, Russo and other mayors and police chiefs say the law has served to emboldened pedestrians.

"I have been trying to fight this law since its inception," Margate Police Chief David Wolfson said. "It's a horrible law. It was well-intentioned. I don't believe it's working the way it's supposed to. People don't understand."

Gary Poedubicky, acting director of the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety, says pedestrian crashes in most Shore towns have decreased since the law's passage - in Ocean City there was a 46 percent drop in the five years after the law (36) compared with the five years prior to the law (67). But he acknowledges the confusion the law has created and stressed the need for common sense. Pedestrian fatalities in New Jersey, 173 in 2016, are at a 10-year high, accounting for nearly a third of all roadway fatalities in the state.

The pedestrian statistics do not account for rear-end crashes, and as Wolfson said, "How about the hundreds of near-misses?"

The law states that "no pedestrian shall leave a curb . . . and walk or run into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is impossible for the driver to yield or stop."

But in practice, as Russo wrote recently in a letter to the Downbeach BUZZ: "Hordes of visitors are no longer looking each way before crossing the street but are rather just stepping directly off the curbs and basically telling drivers, 'You have to stop for me, it's the law!' " (Others step out more gingerly and will give a grateful thank-you wave when the cars do stop.)

Wolfson says, and traffic experts agree, that absent fundamental changes in the street design, in speed limits, in lane widths, and in the visual cues given to drivers who see a sea of green lights, changing the law gets you only so far.

"Cars are traveling at 35 miles an hour," he said. "Pedestrians think if they step off the curb, the car's going to stop, and it's not. We've given them a false sense of security."

Longport Police Chief Frank Culmone keeps a half-dozen orange "Stop for Pedestrians" signs stashed behind the station. The borough decided putting them out would exacerbate the problem.

"They've become desensitized," Culmone said. "The law is written in such a way the pedestrian has to use due caution, and wait for there to be a break in traffic. They're not even breaking stride."

The problem is particularly acute in beach towns, overrun with cars, bikes, joggers, pedestrians, a ballooning summer population immersed in what Russo calls "fun foam."

"It's a beach mentality," said Andrew Laver of Voorhees, who was crossing 31st Avenue in Longport last weekend with his wife, Jennifer, two children, and two in-laws. "If you're out there in Cherry Hill or in Voorhees, you're not jumping out into the crosswalk. You would not ever do that on Route 73 or Route 70. They have the big cart and they think they have the territory."

In the middle of Atlantic Avenue at Iroquois Avenue in Margate, Joanna Belson, 40, has just given a guy in a delivery truck who did not stop for her the finger. She finished crossing and reported him to his company.

"I grew up spending my summers here," said Belson, who now lives in Los Angeles, where, she reports, cars really do stop for pedestrians. "People here just think they can speed up and make it, instead of being courteous."

Nearby, in Longport, Carol Sarole, 73, is navigating Atlantic Avenue at 31st Street with a strategy of caution and eye contact.

"I stare them all down," she said. "Last week we all screamed as an 11-year-old was in the middle of the street and a car came zooming down."

She said pedestrians also act foolishly. "At this point, it's both," she said.

But it's not just the task of changing a culture - a challenge that Russo described as "a Herculean task if not a totally impossible and fruitless effort." The 2010 law imposes $200 fines and the possibility of a 15-day period of community service. But mostly it gets shorthanded to four words: Must stop for pedestrians.

Ian Lockwood of Toole Design Group, an expert in sustainable transportation policy, said the law was useless if not accompanied by significant changes in street design.

Pedestrian-heavy streets a block from the beach with 35 mph speed limits, he said, are "a recipe for killing people."

A lot comes down to expectations, he said.

"At 20 miles an hour or less, motorists will often yield to pedestrians without worrying about it," Lockwood said. "Over that, they will try to get past them. That's exactly the wrong behavior in a beach town."

Lockwood advocates "shared streets," a concept implemented in Massachusetts and England.

Counterintuitive to people in a car culture, shared streets are landscaped and paved and reengineered to allow cars, bikes, and pedestrians to negotiate the same space.

"It's even slower than a calmed street," he said. "It works great. It's slow enough. People negotiate shopping malls and parking lots. We all go to skating rinks and go counterclockwise on razor-sharp blades. People figure out complicated situations routinely. They have to think. The safety records in these places outperform conventional design."

Wolfson, of Margate, said the town has used federal grant money to hire the Philadelphia-based Urban Engineers to redesign Atlantic Avenue. He envisions calming traffic, as Longport has done, by reducing lanes from two in each direction to one, among other changes.

The conflict pops up on social media, with photos of pedestrians crossing in front of cars posted on a Facebook page, Locals Have the Right of Way.

In Ventnor, Mayor Beth Holtzman also wants the law repealed. She has asked the police to remind pedestrians the law does not permit crossing against a traffic light.

"I know why the legislation was passed," Holtzman said. "It was emotional. It was a tragedy that was horrible. There's going to be more tragedies.

"When I see them going into the street with traffic coming with the baby carriage ahead of the adult, I just shake my head and say, 'What's wrong with these people?' "

arosenberg@phillynews.com

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@amysrosenberg

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