If you’re driving on five-lane South Main Street near campus later this year and a HAWK stops you to let some Eagles walk across, it will be the result of the city of Statesboro and Georgia Southern University, together, trying to prevent a tragedy.
Eagles here are GSU students, of course. The less-familiar HAWK is a contrived acronym for High-intensity Activated CrossWalK.
To pedestrians, the HAWK system will present a pair of those push-button crosswalk signals that count down the seconds while it’s still OK to cross. But unlike the signals downtown, this pedestrian crossing will stand alone, in a place without ordinary four-way stoplights for cars.
The signals facing vehicle traffic are the real difference. When the system is preparing to let pedestrians cross, these first flash yellow, then turn solid yellow, then solid red to halt motorists. The signal flashes red again when it’s time for drivers to proceed with caution after stopping.
“A lot of people don’t typically know what a HAWK signal is, but they’ve been around for about 15 years and they’re used all over the country now,” said Assistant City Engineer Brad Deal.
He showed a video clip and explained the system last week to Statesboro City Council, which approved an application to the Georgia Department of Transportation. The crosswalk and signal system, the first of its exact kind in Statesboro, would span U.S. Highway 301 South, also known as South Main, at Parrish Drive.
On the campus side, Parrish Drive leads to Forest Drive at the GSU Public Safety headquarters and the School of Human Ecology.
As part of the proposal, the university plans to install an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant sidewalk from Highway 301 to Forest Drive, GSU Associate Vice President of Facilities Marvin Mills confirmed.
“We worked with the city on this, with the city engineers,” Mills said. “We have some concerns about our students, of course, crossing 301 where there’s no stoplight. We see a lot of students who are actually crossing right there at Parrish Drive.”
So the planners hope that the sidewalk will encourage even more students to cross there when the signal system is completed.
Walkers vs. 17,000 cars
Across Highway 301 is the drive into the Legacy apartment complex. The Super 8 motel and a small retail center are also there, but most of the pedestrians are student residents of Legacy and other apartments crossing to campus or returning.
“We’ve done some pretty extensive traffic studies and found that during the spring and fall semesters at Georgia Southern, from about the hours of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. there’s approximately 50 pedestrians per hour crossing in this location,” Deal told City Council.
Meanwhile, about 17,000 vehicles typically travel this segment of South Main each day, Deal said. For one 24-hour period, May 2, 2013, the count was 18,164, according to a traffic engineering report the engineering consulting firm Wolverton & Associates provided the city.
At the city’s request, the Georgia DOT in 2012 lowered the speed limit in this area from 45 mph to 35 mph.
Most drivers speeding
But in an updated report for the city this June, Wolverton showed that southbound motorists’ average speed for May 19-21, 2015, was 43.5 mph, with 92 percent of cars exceeding the speed limit. The 85th percentile speed, southbound, was 49.2 mph, meaning that 15 percent of motorists were going faster than that, and the top speed recorded was 84.8 mph.
Northbound, approaching downtown, the average speed was slower, 37.4 mph, and the 85th percentile speed was 42.7 mph, with a top speed of 63.7. But most drivers still exceeded the speed limit.
The traffic, Deal said, gives pedestrians few gaps to cross all five lanes. Many make it to the center turn lane, then wait for another gap to cross the other two traffic lanes.
Despite the obvious risk, no pedestrians were killed at this location in the past several years.
Two accidents were noted in the city’s report. A pickup truck hit a bicycle Aug. 22, 2012, and an ambulance took the cyclist to the hospital. A car, turning left from the Legacy complex’s drive on Aug. 19, 2013, struck a pedestrian standing in the South Main center lane, but only the car’s side mirror made contact, and the pedestrian was not hospitalized.
Interim City Manager Robert Cheshire, previously head of the city’s engineering department, has cautioned the council that installing crosswalks without proper signals can be worse than doing nothing.
“The way that it is now, at least the pedestrian crossing the street is somewhat in a defensive mode,” Cheshire said last week. “It’s their responsibility to cross safely, but once you’ve done something else, you’ve introduced a crosswalk or some measure to make it safer … you still want that pedestrian to be thinking about what they’re doing.”
The current proposal, he said, allows that and has been chosen as the best option after much discussion and multiple studies.
It is the latest effort to address pedestrian safety near the cluster of recent apartment complexes on South Main. Besides the speed limit reduction, the city built a sidewalk from Rucker Lane to Jones Lane Park and required owners of the Forum apartment complex to build a sidewalk to Rucker Lane, where there is a traffic light, Deal noted.
In a different area with student pedestrians, three crossing signals were installed across Lanier Drive that somewhat resemble the proposed one, but these are “rapid-flashing beacons” and not true HAWK systems, Cheshire said.
In its updated traffic study dated June 17, Wolverton recommended the HAWK. The university has provided an agreement letter for construction of the sidewalk, and this was made part of the application to the Georgia DOT.
“GDOT was in agreement with the results of the traffic study, and they’ve actually indicated that they would be willing to install the HAWK signal with their funds,” Deal told City Council. “The only thing that the city would be responsible for paying is the monthly power bill for the signal.”
He noted that the department’s approval is not official yet and that the city has Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds available, if needed.
In an interview Friday, Mills said university officials think the Department of Transportation would start installation in two to three months and that the university would be ready to build the sidewalk then.
“It won’t take us but about two weeks to do that sidewalk, so I’m anticipating by the end of October we should have everything ready to go,” he said.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.