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No painted crosswalk doesn't mean no kids

Shortly before the start of this school year came the news that the city of Medford would no longer provide a painted crosswalk or school zone signs at the intersection of Black Oak Drive and Dellwood Avenue, near Hoover Elementary School.

The reason given: The crossing is too dangerous for school kids without a crossing guard and the school district wouldn't provide a crossing guard. Say what? The crossing is too dangerous, so the solution is to take down the signs warning drivers that there's a crossing ahead?

Yep, that's the plan.

(For the sake of transparency, let me note that I live about two blocks from the intersection, occasionally walk by it — although rarely across it — and drive through it many times in a week.)

The school district's response was to encourage students to, rather than crossing there on a relatively straight line to the school, instead walk two blocks south to a corner with traffic lights. Yeah, that'll happen.

To test my hypothesis one morning recently, I poured an extra cup of coffee, got in my car and parked a block or so away from the corner to watch what happens. (Yes, it was only two blocks from my house, but I figured the sight of a guy standing there watching kids cross the street might result in a 911 call by a neighbor.)

In the 20 minutes that I observed before the start of school, 16 people approached Black Oak from Dellwood. One guy walking a dog turned south, perhaps to cross at the light or perhaps just making a loop around the block. The other 15? You guessed it — they walked across the unmarked and unsigned intersection. Eleven of the 15 were children, clearly on their way to school.

So the leading-the-horse-to-water equivalent here is that you can tell kids to walk two blocks out of their way, but you can't make them do it.

Black Oak is unquestionably a busy road and drivers coming up a hill from the south have probably only 75 yards or so between the crest of the hill and the crossing. But now they have even less warning, with the school zone sign removed.

This is connected with the city's belief that marked crosswalks are more dangerous than unmarked crossings, because pedestrians feel unrealistically secure within the confines of the painted lines. Not sure I've ever seen anything saying the same about school zone signs ...

As a driver, the unpainted crosswalk argument never really rang true with me. That was reinforced only a few hours before I began writing this column, when a fellow stepped onto Main Street as I was driving to work. Jaywalking, I thought, before realizing that, no, he was in an unpainted crosswalk at Evergreen Way, next the railroad tracks. We passed a comfortable distance away from each other, but I was glad the nearby police car was a half-block in front of me, instead of behind me.

Yes, there are various studies supporting the idea that unpainted crosswalks are safer than painted ones. However, a recent study from the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center also notes that's the case in the absence of other safety devices, such as flashing lights.

Does it make sense to put up a flashing light and school zone signs for 11 kids? Maybe there were more I didn't see before or after my observation. Does 15 make it worthwhile? Twenty? I think one kid hit by a car would answer that question pretty quickly.

Meanwhile, Black Oak drivers, slow down as you come up that hill toward Dellwood. A crosswalk exists at any intersection, painted or not. And kids may be in that crosswalk, painted or not.

— Bob Hunter is an associate editor for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at bhunter@mailtribune.com.