The only acceptable number of traffic deaths is zero. We are saddened by the loss of a 16 year-old teenager who was struck and killed by a driver while trying to cross Route 539 on the Union Transportation Trail (UTT) in Monmouth County, NJ during the AM Rush Hour on February 17th. Our deepest condolences go out to victims’ family and friends. Most news reports have misplaced the crash at the intersection with Route 537 about a half a mile north of the site, the State Police confirm that the crash happened at the crossing.
The UTT is a 9-mile-long trail that in Monmouth County, NJ 15 miles east of Trenton. Its future northern extension into Mercer County will be designated as a Circuit Trail. There are several road crossings but the intersection with routes 539 and 27 is by far the most difficult to navigate. It is an arterial highway with a 50-mile-per-hour speed limit and an Annual Average Daily Traffic volume (AADT) of 13,000 vehicles per day. Speeding is common and it is a popular route to the Jersey Shore in the summer. Monmouth County engineering inspected the trail crossing immediately after the crash and determined that the trail crossing is fully compliant, and the flashing signals were functioning properly at the time of the crash. The crash remains under investigation.
The crossing meets the standards spelled out in the AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities. However, that guide is now 11 years old and a lot of bikeway design improvements have happened since then. The New Jersey’s Complete Streets Design Guide (which is not official NJDOT design guidance) only states that “…on higher volume and higher speed roadways, additional pedestrian treatments are recommended to enhance the crossing and supplement crosswalk striping.
Other Treatments that Improve Trail Crossings
Pedestrian bridges and underpasses are the best choices for unsafe road crossings, but they are also very expensive and can take years to implement. There have been several on the Circuit Trails network that have opened in the past few years and about a half-dozen are currently being planned. At-grade trail crossings that use standard traffic signals also exist, such as the Chester Valley Trail crossing US 30 in Exton.
The Federal Highway Administration’s Proven Safety Countermeasures offer options to force drivers to stop or slow down and shorten crossing distances. Sometimes these solutions can be installed as a “quick build” using inexpensive materials to gauge their effectiveness before permanent changes are made.
Pedestrian Hybrid Beacons – These are pedestrian-activated traffic signals that have 3 different phases; slow down (flashing yellow), stop (solid red) and proceed if the crosswalk is clear (flashing red). There are a few Pedestrian Hybrid Beacons in New Jersey but the only one in our region is at the Burlington County Fairgrounds, which is only turned on for major events. PennDOT has not approved their use.
Pedestrian Refuge Island – Pedestrian refuge island decreases pedestrian crashes by 56%. The person crossing only has to focus on looking in one direction. It also can narrow the travel lane forcing drivers to pay attention. The crossing can be staggered to force trail users to slow down.
Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons – Studies have suggested that they are more effective than traditional circular flashing beacons in getting drivers to stop. You should only cross when drivers follow the law and yield at the crossing, which is why they work best in tandem with pedestrian refuge islands. A study found that Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons placed overhead had the highest level of driver yield rates.
Refuge islands and RRFB’s are gaining acceptance.
Recent trail projects in Montgomery and Bucks County over the past couple of years indicate that there is an increasing preference for pedestrian refuge islands with either RRFB. This is in spite of the fact that these elements are not included in PENNDOT’s Bicycle Facilities design manual. For their part, NJDOT is currently working on a Trail Crossing Design Guidebook which should help traffic engineers and trail planners gain consensus on safer road crossing treatments.
Trails provide a safe harbor from our road network, but there are places where roads and trails intersect and we need to make sure that these crossings are as safe as possible.