Collisions between students, vehicles remain a common danger


The crosswalk that many students use to cross Isaacs Avenue. Photo by Tywen Kelly.

Sara Platnick

Headlights cutting through the dark, pouring rain, and the screech of tires on cement.

First-year Weiben “Jack” Chen and sophomore Devin Reese were on their way home on Halloween when they were struck by a car on the crosswalk in front of Jewett Hall. Chen and Reese went to the emergency room, but were able to leave that night and are expected to recover from their injuries. The driver who hit them was not under the influence of any substance.

Crossing Isaacs Avenue has been a danger to students for years, and many students have witnessed a near miss while walking across this street. Isaacs Avenue is the second busiest street in Walla Walla, with an estimated 10,000 vehicles a day traveling on the road. Hundreds of Whitman students cross the street daily to reach off-campus housing north of Isaacs, one of Whitman’s four fraternity houses or North Hall.

Chen, who has been in Walla Walla for a few months after moving from Hangzhou City, China suffered movement impairments and scratches to the face, and also was tested for a concussion.

“What I usually do is double check whether there’s a car or not, but at [the] time I was talking with my friend. I saw this car coming, and it was kind of far away from me, and the pedestrian light was on, it was blinking. There was a guy crossing the street from the other side, and so I figured the car saw the light and saw us and I started walking. But as I was walking in the middle of the street, the car didn’t stop, and so I got hit,” Chen said.

Reese, was walking with Chen and was also hit. The sophomore Biology and Film & Media studies double major incurred cuts on his face and knees from the accident.

“I think in that specific instance…Jack [and I should have] just taken one glance to make sure that people were slowing down…especially when the visibility conditions were so bad at that specific moment, I think that is probably the best [thing] we could have done. But it’s a weird place for a crosswalk, ultimately. And if you haven’t driven that street before and you don’t expect it, it’s weird. And so I would say just make sure…to be extra cautious [when crossing],” Reese said.

Reese mentioned that he does not want this event to be a defining part of his life here at Whitman because his injuries were so minor. Nevertheless, he agreed to speak to The Pioneer about the incident because he believes that students being hit by cars is an often overlooked issue and his narrative can help others to see the problem at hand.

“My whole idea about the issue is that it’s not really a big deal. And a lot of people make it out to be [a big deal]. I think it would be if I was more injured and if my lifestyle was more hindered, but honestly at this point I’m just trying to get back to normal. And I would say that there’s nothing preventing me from doing that, but it’s other people who bring it back up again because obviously I don’t look totally healthy yet, but I basically am,” Reese said.

Isaacs is not the only street where students have recently been hit by cars. Senior Heather Gaya was hit on Oct. 13 on Alder street near the Apex Food & Deli while walking through a crosswalk. She was later taken to the emergency room to treat a torn ACL, quad muscle and a concussion.

On campus, Gaya is a Biology and Environmental Studies combined major. Her injuries have affected her schoolwork somewhat, but she says her professors and the school have been very accommodating about her challenges.

“I definitely think I’ve gotten a lot better about not jaywalking now, and I notice as a driver how many people are just not following the law at all, but I think it makes it difficult [for the city] to address the issue; I can’t really blame them because the issue was someone being stupid and not seeing me in the crosswalk,” Gaya said. 

Photo by Tywen Kelly.

Whitman has worked on plans over the years to address the concerns about student safety near campus. Since the late 1990s, a committee has worked with the city to address facility and safety concerns near campus. One member of this group is Peter Harvey, Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of Whitman. His job occupation includes overseeing the maintenance and risk management of the college.

Since the creation of the committee, the school has worked with the city to fund the lighted crosswalk on Isaacs Avenue in front of the Tau Kappa Epsilon house. Originally, the crosswalk featured lights that flashed on the street, but after some study of the crosswalk, they found that those lights did not work as effectively as lights that blink. Additionally, the committee conducted a security training program with the fraternities to teach safety in crossing the streets, but the program is not used anymore.

Nevertheless, this past summer, the committee worked with the City of Walla Walla to hire outside consultants to study Isaacs Avenue. The Isaacs Avenue Corridor Study looked at the street to see what improvements should be made. Some current issues with the street are mechanical, while others deal with safety concerns.

According to their findings, the current collision rate for vehicles travelling on Isaacs is 5.59 collisions per million vehicle-miles, which is more than triple the statewide rate for similar streets. To address the danger to pedestrians, the state has begun a plan to change the street from four lanes to a three-lane setup with bike lanes on either side of the street. The city has been applying for state and federal funds to cover the costs of renovation, which is expected to cost 15 million dollars. Assuming that grants are available for the project, the city can begin those renovations as early as 2017. The renovations will take a couple years total to complete. 

The city expects the bike lanes and the three-lane setup will allow pedestrians to have a greater buffer from vehicles. Thanks to the bike lanes, drivers will have more space to make turns off of Isaacs, and the center lane will provide a safer crossing experience for pedestrians.

“I think it’s a shared responsibility. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s mostly a pedestrian responsibility, but clearly pedestrians have to be careful. Sometimes I’ll drive down Park St. and students will just walk in front of me…but drivers have to [be] cautious wherever they’re driving. Yes, especially through a college community, but really anywhere you’re driving you just have to pay attention. We all have a shared responsibility in this,” Harvey said.