Fenwick fatality underscores pedestrian safety concerns

Police and government leaders throughout the area are trying to keep pedestrians from ending up on the wrong side of a car accident, and an incident this week underscored the need for the problem to be addressed.

The Delaware State Police this week were investigating a collision north of Fenwick Island that resulted in the death of Austin “A.J.” Powell, a 24-year-old mechanic from Suffolk, Va.

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The incident occurred around 11 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 5, north of Fenwick Island on Route 1 (Coastal Highway) near the Summertime Park community.

According to reports, it appears that Powell was standing on the edge of the highway, with a group of other people and vehicles parked on the southbound shoulder, just south of South Croppers Circle, while a 50-year-old Fenwick Island man was driving a 2003 Ford F250 pickup truck southbound on Route 1.

According to the DSP, Powell was “standing on the right edge of the right travel lane, directly in the path of the truck. As a result, the front right of the pickup struck [him], throwing him onto the southbound shoulder.” He was pronounced dead at the scene.

After the impact, the driver continued south about a mile before stopping in the Sunrise Shopping Plaza in Fenwick Island, police said. The driver was not injured in the collision, but was transported to a nearby hospital for an undetermined medical condition, they noted.

With their investigation ongoing this week, the DSP was unable to state whether drugs or alcohol were involved on behalf of either party.

No charges had been filed as of Oct. 10.

Keeping pedestrians alive

Pedestrian fatalities had been on the increase in Delaware in recent years (26 in 2013, 27 in 2014, 36 in 2015), before a drop in 2016 to 27 fatalities.

The Office of Highway Safety operates on all state-owned roads, which includes about 99 percent of Delaware’s roadways. Working under the Department of Safety & Homeland Security, OHS’s efforts “are behavioral in nature … trying to get people to buckle up, trying to get people to slow down … provide information to both pedestrians and motorists about safe motoring,” said OHS Director Jana Simpler.

“I think three-quarters of our fatality crashes happen at nighttime, and the pedestrians aren’t using safety equipment, so it’s really difficult for drivers to see them,” said Richard Klepner OHS Pedestrian Safety Program manager.

And that doesn’t include all of the injuries.

Last year in Delaware, about 400 traffic collisions involved a pedestrian. Of those, one in eight of those in New Castle County resulted in a pedestrian death (18 deaths of 295 accidents), six of 51 in Kent County and three of 54 in Sussex County.

Police cracking down

“Over the last several years, we tried the tactic of educating the public of safe pedestrian habits — walking against traffic, using crosswalks… We’ve spent a lot of time on education,” Simpler said.

After years of education grants, Simpler said it’s appropriate to encourage police enforcement for pedestrian rules — after all, drivers learned pretty quickly to buckle up when seatbelt laws were strictly enforced.

Using federal money, OHS administers grants for highway safety, and the Fenwick Island Police Department used one such grant to ramp up pedestrian safety patrols this summer. Ticketing was at the officers’ discretion, and Fenwick definitely issued a few fines.

In enforcing the pedestrian laws, police are looking or anyone not following the law: failing to use a sidewalk or crosswalk, crossing the road in unexpected places, or walking at nighttime without carrying a light or wearing reflective material.

Those who receive tickets are sometimes a bit incredulous. One vacationing couple was cited for jaywalking in Fenwick Island late one night in July. After the regular fine and Delaware’s other fees, their penalty was $104.50 apiece.

The Maryland couple admitted to jaywalking, but said they were frustrated to pay $210 for a moonlit stroll.

Anyone who is ticketed or charged has a right to defend themselves in court, but that involves more time and travel for an out-of-state visitor.

In July, six coastal police departments were doing such work under the safety grants. Due to manpower issues, Fenwick was only able to do one shift, making contact with five pedestrians. But the other local beach jurisdictions, including Bethany Beach, South Bethany, Dewey Beach and Rehoboth Beach, made 2,600 pedestrian contacts. They were instructed to target high-crash areas from 3 to 10 p.m.

Improving the situation

Ultimately, New Castle County has a worse problem with pedestrian crashes than Sussex. The urban setting has 50-mph routes that are congested with two-way traffic, businesses, social services, housing developments, gas stations, public transit and much more. People are more likely to be caught walking along those busy roads at all hours.

“While we don’t necessarily have the problem [in Sussex] that we see in New Castle County, it’s important that the locals and the transient population see this message,” Simpler said.

In Fenwick Island, they piggybacked off the pedestrian safety campaign in Ocean City, Md., featuring the “Cheswick the Lifeguard Crab” mascot.

It’s tough to target a particular audience, though, since anyone might walk. Plus, beaches have an especially transient population.

With Delaware often leading the nation in pedestrian deaths (per capita), the State is also brainstorming solutions through the Advisory Council on Walkability & Pedestrian Awareness (“Pedestrian Council”), reestablished in 2015 by Executive Order #54.

Within Fenwick town limits, the town council recently started a Pedestrian Safety Committee to tackle the problem and try to install more sidewalks. The next meeting of that group is Oct. 19 at 10 a.m.

By Laura Walter
Staff Reporter