Credit: Needham Observer

November and December were not good months for pedestrian safety in Needham. There were more pedestrian accidents here in those two months than in any of the past four years.

Needham Police reported nine “pedestrian crashes” over those two months. From 2019 through 2022, the annual totals ranged from four to eight.

Needham Police Deputy Chief Chris Baker said a review of the police reports found no discernable pattern among the incidents, but he did note, “In December, there were a few instances of inattention by pedestrians.”

“They were pretty well scattered around,” he said of the locations, time of day and other accident elements.

Although the numbers are concerning, they represent a small sample size and none of the November-December incidents resulted in serious injury. Still, they offer an example of Needham reflecting a national trend that is heading in the wrong direction when it comes to overall traffic safety.

Needham Police reported 499 overall traffic accidents in 2023, a 10.6% increase over 2022. Comparisons to 2020-21 are skewed due to Covid’s impacts on traffic volume. But the long-term trend nationally has shown that since about 2010, traffic safety numbers have steadily worsened after three decades of consistent improvement.

Justin McCullen, who has been involved in transportation management in Needham for nearly a decade, chairs the recently created Mobility Planning & Coordination Committee. It has a broad charge to advise the town on mobility-related infrastructure, but he said safety is always front of mind.

The committee is planning a transportation summit scheduled for March at Powers Hall. “It’s not a gathering to complain about traffic and pedestrian issues,” said McCullen. “It’s meant to be a holistic look at transportation overall.”

“There are things that we can do as a community or as a traffic safety committee, but there are national trends that we can’t necessarily buck.”

Driving while distracted

The most commonly cited theory for the downward safety trend is the ubiquity of mobile phones and the issue that both drivers and pedestrians are often distracted. It presents challenges for devising policy solutions, given mobile phones aren’t going away and neither is multitasking.

Baker noted that the state legislature last year attempted a policy remedy – Chapter 358: An Act to Reduce Traffic Fatalities. The law also added safety-feature requirements for both motorized and nonmotorized methods of transport.

Baker said standard police accident report forms now feature boxes to report when accidents involve “vulnerable users” such as cyclists, skaters and scooter users. So additional data can now be gathered on how those users are faring on the roads.

Baker said pedestrians will remain a focus. “They’re vulnerable, so we have to do what we can to protect the pedestrians.”

McCullen said the Mobility Committee has a range of “traffic calming” tools at its disposal, but that it’s ultimately a human problem that requires individual responsibility. “You can’t just put signs up everywhere,” he said. “We have a lot of drivers that I don’t think have the respect for what a stop sign actually is.”

McCullen believes there is a lack of common knowledge of many current traffic regulations, such as default speed limits and crosswalk protocols.

“The statutory speed limit is called ‘thickly settled’ and that’s 30 miles an hour,” he said. “Most people don’t know what that is, and some don’t care.

“And it’s very hard to do crosswalk enforcement because the police aren’t given a good law to enforce. The crosswalk law in Massachusetts actually does not obligate anyone to stop if pedestrians are not actually IN the crosswalk,” he said.

“You have those pedestrians who think they have the right of way, and that drivers have to stop. But you just can’t jump out in front of a car, because, you know, physics always wins.”

McCullen hopes the upcoming transportation summit will provide residents a better understanding of the town’s overall transportation approach, such as the emphasis on traffic calming

And unlike other summits designed to bridge gaps between opposing factions, the beauty of this summit is that the audience will be chock full of drivers and pedestrians, since nearly all of us fit both descriptions. 

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