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Student death prompts new measures

ASHLAND — Southern Oregon University plans to implement emergency safety measures along Siskiyou Boulevard today after a student struck in a crosswalk last week died Wednesday evening.

Gladys Jimenez, 22, died at about 5 p.m. at Rogue Valley Medical Center in Medford after receiving head and possible internal injuries from the Feb. 13 accident.

SOU plans to implement a flag system at five crosswalks over the busy, four- and five-lane boulevard, which runs in front of the university.

Buckets with colorful, reflective flags will be placed at either end, and students will be instructed to carry a flag as they cross to warn drivers, said Craig Morris, SOU vice president for finance and administration.

School officials also are conferring with the city of Ashland on long-range safety upgrades, said SOU President Mary Cullinan during a news conference Thursday.

Jimenez was struck at the Garfield Street crosswalk by a car driven by SOU accountant Lesley Orr, 54, whom Cullinan described as "greatly affected and stricken by this."

Ashland police have finished their investigation and sent the case to the Jackson County District Attorney's Office, said Deputy Police Chief Rich Walsh. He declined to say what charges, if any, police recommended against Orr.

District Attorney Mark Huddleston said a urine sample provided by the driver will take four to eight weeks to analyze and will help determine whether his office files criminal or non-criminal charges.

Officers at the crash said there was no suspicion the driver was under the influence of intoxicants, Huddleston said, adding that skid marks indicate the driver was only one or two miles per hour over the posted speed limit.

"One thing is clear," said Walsh. "She was clearly in the crosswalk when struck by the vehicle — and the pedestrian was not at fault in this case."

The crash occurred at about sunset, when it was still light. Jimenez was walking away from the university and was in the lane closest to Garfield Street when she was struck. There were no vehicles in the adjacent lane to obscure the driver's view, Walsh added.

A study by Ashland officials of the past 10 years showed two people have died and 14 have been injured in crashes in crosswalks on the stretch of Siskiyou Boulevard from South Mountain Avenue to Wightman Street.

SOU students, faculty and staff received counseling from psychologists at the Student Health and Wellness Center and a support session was to be held Thursday evening at the Commuter Resource Center.

Noting the closely knit SOU "family," Cullinan spoke of "the incredible sadness this campus feels "¦ it affects all of us and we're trying to cope."

As a pedestrian and driver, Cullinan said she finds the crosswalks "quite frightening." She has opened talks with Ashland City Administrator Martha Bennett to install more permanent safety devices.

Crosswalk flags originated in this decade in several cities, including Salt Lake City and Seattle, after many pedestrian-vehicle collisions won them notoriety as pedestrian-unfriendly cities, according to the Web site of the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center. The intersections are "adopted" and taken care of by adjacent businesses or offices.

Noting that the fatality has "moved us into crisis mode," Ashland Public Works Director Jim Olson recommended that the Traffic Safety Commission act on several relatively inexpensive steps that could be done in the near term:

  • Close the Garfield Street crosswalk because it's the widest and least safe, crossing five lanes of traffic.
  • Get permission from Oregon Department of Transportation to cut speed on Siskiyou Boulevard (also a state highway) from 30 to 25 mph.
  • Increase street light wattage from 70 to 150 (the dimmer wattage is considered "dark sky acceptable" in view of Ashland's membership in the Dark Sky Organization supporting viewing of the night sky).
  • Install flashing amber beacons at the sides and center of some crosswalks.
  • Install rumble strips before each crosswalk.

When Siskiyou Boulevard was rebuilt four years ago with enhanced safety features, including bumpouts to shorten crosswalks, city officials asked ODOT to drop the speed limit to 25. City Councilman David Chapman said the agency responded that traffic needed to "settle in" and be studied first.

"Apparently, everyone forgot about it," said Chapman, noting that posted speeds are also creating danger on Highway 66 (Ashland Street) around Normal Avenue and the railway overpass and should also be dropped to 25 mph.

More expensive proposals for crosswalk safety on Ashland's main streets have included a pedestrian overpass and pedestrian-triggered flasher lights embedded in crosswalk strips, but Chapman called the bridge "high money for not much probable use" and added, with such high foot traffic, the flashers would be going all the time.

Bennett has authorized overtime for more police stings to catch drivers who don't yield to pedestrians entering the crosswalks. Police used such stings after two students were hit in crosswalks last fall.

SOU plans a "celebration of life" for Jimenez in the near future, said Multicultural Center Director Marvin Woodard Jr. He said Jimenez was "an admirable student "¦ who was about to step out of the box and was supported by friends and family and excited about social justice." Jimenez was a sophomore in criminal justice who had just transferred on a scholarship from Santa Rosa Community College.

Diane Potratz, director of the Student Health and Wellness Center, said people seeking counseling are "recognizing an immense loss of a beautiful person "¦ with a lot of raw emotion."

Grief is a natural response, she said, and signs of it include difficulty in focusing, sleep disturbance and anxiety, but "people need to realize they're not alone."

Mayor John Morrison said "everyone feels bad" when there's a crosswalk accident or fatality, and "we always take a good look at our practices "¦ it's a constant ongoing examination to ensure pedestrian safety."

Any changes in safety policies would come from the city's Transportation and Safety Commission, Morrison said.

The commission will study crosswalk safety at its next meeting, set for 7 p.m. Thursday in Ashland City Council chambers.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Southern Oregon University President Mary Cullinan addresses the media Thursday morning during a press conference concerning the death of Gladys Jimenez, who was struck in a crosswalk near the university on Feb. 13. SOU plans to implement a flag system at crosswalks today to improve safety until other measures can be adopted. - Jamie Lusch