The subject of this article is safety awareness for pedestrians and drivers at the crosswalk near the intersection of Melton Lake Greenway and Emory Valley Road Greenway (pictured at left), which I have dubbed the “Death Zone.”
To establish some credibility on the subject, I’ll note that I’ve been running competitively for 34 years, running nearly 75,000 miles, placing in all race distances and age categories. I’m also a board member of the Oak Ridge Track Club, an organization dedicated to promoting fitness through safe running and road racing in the Oak Ridge community.
Running as much as I do, and traveling as much as I do, I find myself at the subject intersection almost daily, as well as many other intersections throughout Oak Ridge, Knoxville, and the United States in general. With this running experience, I am keenly aware of the importance of running safely, and I advocate safety while running above all other interests. After all, if I don’t get home alive, my run wasn’t very successful at improving my health, right? Although an experienced runner, I have no legal experience, so I speak only as an educated layman on the legal aspects of Tennessee pedestrian law.
With regard to the “Death Zone,” a few weeks ago I came the closest to being killed by a vehicle while running than ever before—that is, other than the deliberate attempts by drivers to kill me while I’m running, which could easily be the subject of my first book. This near-death experience occurred because of three key factors, some of which are unique to this crosswalk, while others are universally applicable:
- ambiguity about the laws that govern pedestrians in crosswalks;
- the confusion over what I, the runner, might or might not do as a pedestrian at the intersection; and
- the unique layout and position of the “Death Zone” crosswalk relative to turning south onto Emory Valley Road.
I’ll tell my story to illustrate these issues, then offer some suggestions to improve safety in the “Death Zone.”
While running west on the Melton Lake Greenway, approaching mile seven of my run, I came up to the “Death Zone” at about 5 p.m., a very busy traffic period for this stretch of Melton Lake Drive. Due to the volume of traffic, I stopped to wait for an opening to cross. Typically, at this time of day, I can wait three-seven minutes before the traffic clears enough to cross, especially since I need an extra second or two to negotiate the fairly steep incline from a dead stop.
On most days, a break in the traffic presents itself, and I head across with no incident. However, on this particular day (and this situation occurs frequently), a driver decided to be “courteous” and stop at the east side of the crosswalk to let me cross the road.
In this case, and typically, the traffic from the other direction is not as accommodating, thus preventing me from crossing. This situation, where a car in one direction stops and cars from the other direction do not, creates a very dangerous situation. As the “courteous” driver sits and waits, traffic builds up behind them and the long line of drivers grows very impatient.
This also creates an expectation of me, the runner, to get on across the road to alleviate the traffic congestion, even though I had no intention of crossing until a break in the traffic occurred. In this situation, I am perceived to be causing the problem because the car has stopped and I’m not crossing, thus compelling me to attempt a crossing, putting me in a position that compromises safety and is very unsafe.
Adding to the dangerous nature of this specific situation, the “Death Zone” crosswalk is also the beginning of the developing westbound left-hand turn lane from Melton Lake Drive on to Emory Valley Road. Because of the widening for the turn lane, space is created to the north (or right side) of the “courteous” driver, tempting impatient drivers to pass the stopped driver on the right next to where I’m standing and waiting. At this point the perfect storm of “unsafeness” is created:
- A car is stopped at the crosswalk, but only in one direction;
- Cars could be passing this stopped car on the right because of the extra space created by the turn lane; and
- Cars from the opposite direction may or may not stop to let me cross.
As the pedestrian, I now have to either convince the stopped car to move on, which has yet to work, or try to get across the road. I now know what squirrels must be experiencing, and the animal carnage along the roadway increasingly suggests to me that the odds aren’t good for a successful crossing.
On this particular day, due to the need to cross and relieve the building traffic tension created by the “courteous” driver, I became focused on the oncoming eastbound traffic that was not stopping and preventing me from getting across. As I focused, my body turned slightly away from the westbound traffic on the left where the “courteous” driver was stopped.
Then, an opening in the oncoming traffic enabled me to go. I stepped out, but failed to check left, and at that moment a Ford F-250 commercial tool truck, the driver of which must have grown just too impatient to allow the unsafe situation to clear, blew around the courteous, stopped driver and very nearly took my head off with his side mirror. It was so close, and he was traveling at such a rate of speed, that I spun around to the side and staggered backward trying to keep my balance.
To make a very long story short, through a series of hand motions and exasperated facial expression, I got the “courteous” driver to drive on to alleviate the unsafe situation, and I just ran a different way home.
As I noted previously, there are three issues that create the very unsafe set of circumstances that created the “Death Zone”:
- the “courteous” driver stopping at a cross walk, which likely occurs due to misinformation about the crosswalk rules outlined in state law;
- cars illegally passing a stopped car at a crosswalk due to the extra lane space caused by the placement and design of the crosswalk; and
- the continuous flow of cars coming from the opposite direction that don’t stop because there is no one in the crosswalk on their side of the road requiring them to stop, per Tennessee Code.
In addition, there is the variable of the runner (me) at the side of the road, unintentionally creating concern and uncertainty among the drivers. As a driver who runs, I know that runners tend to be as unpredictable as dogs and create considerable stress on the part of drivers as to their next dart or weave into traffic (runner’s shame on you), which is also not permitted by state pedestrian laws. All of this contributes to the hazards of the “Death Zone.”
According to Tennessee law (Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-134 (a)), “…the driver of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way…to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within a crosswalk when the pedestrian is upon the half of the roadway upon which the vehicle is traveling…”
Note the emphasis on being “upon… the roadway”, not simply waiting to cross. Thus my assertion that, although I appreciate the good intentions, the “courteous” driver does not have to stop at the crosswalk for a waiting runner, and despite their good intentions, it is this “courteous” driver contributing to the extremely unsafe set of circumstances, leading, in large part, to my near demise and the generally unsafe circumstances of this crosswalk.
Another important point is that while a runner waits to cross the “Death Zone,” it is important to avoid a stance that indicates the likelihood of a sudden darting across the crosswalk. That is, don’t stand as if set at the starting line of the Olympics, but rather, stand back in a relaxed position so as to indicate your waiting status. This is important because you don’t want to invoke a driver response, such as that of the “courteous” driver. Plus, according to Tennessee law, the runner is likely at fault if he darts out into traffic regardless whether there is a crosswalk or not.
Here is more from the Tennessee Code (Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-134 (b)): “No pedestrian shall suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle…”
However, regardless of the runner’s position or action, as in the case of the commercial tool truck, if someone passes the stopped “courteous” driver to pass through the crosswalk (in this case because the turn lane allows enough space on the right to pass), that driver would likely be at fault.
Another section of state law (Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-134 (d)) says, “Whenever any vehicle is stopped at a marked crosswalk…to permit a pedestrian to cross the roadway, the driver of any other vehicle approaching from the rear shall not overtake and pass the stopped vehicle.”
Finally, no matter what the situation at the crosswalk “Death Zone,” according to Tennessee law (Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-136 (a)), “…every driver of a vehicle shall exercise due care to avoid colliding with any pedestrian upon any roadway,.. (b) every driver of a vehicle shall exercise due care by operating the vehicle at a safe speed, by maintaining a safe lookout, by keeping the vehicle under proper control and by devoting full time and attention to operating the vehicle…to see and to avoid endangering life, limb or property and to see and avoid colliding with any other …person… (c) A violation of this section is a Class C misdemeanor.”
As a side note, notice the section highlighting “…devoting full time and attention to operating the vehicle…” This is where I have to comment on texting and calling while driving. The “Death Zone” scenario I have described, which creates an unsafe, potentially deadly, situation is exacerbated by the distraction of cell phone use while driving—so please just don’t do it!
In closing, I have dubbed the crosswalk at the intersection of the Melton Lake Greenway and the Emory Valley Road Greenway as the “Death Zone.” I’ve described the reason why, which is a combination of factors affected by the physical layout of the crosswalk, the actions of drivers, and pedestrians unfamiliar with pedestrian and crosswalk laws.
In writing this article, I have no agenda except that of educating runners and drivers alike to increase safety awareness. I believe this is the first step toward meaningful solutions to problems. Let’s not have the crosswalk near the intersection of Melton Lake Greenway and Emory Valley Road Greenway become another situation where action only comes at the death of an Oak Ridger, or worse, a visitor to our historic city. Pay attention, be in the moment, and we will all run and drive home tonight with no unfortunate accidents.