Every night, William Finley gets behind the wheel of his cab and heads out onto Route 1; every night he sees pedestrians and bicyclists breaking the law and risking their safety by darting in front of cars and ignoring the rules of the road.
Finley has worked as a taxi driver in the Cape Region on-and-off for 18 years, and, he said, pedestrians and bicyclists are more reckless than ever. “I’m surprised more people have not been hit,” he said. “Nobody pays attention, and nobody does anything about it.”
The most recent pedestrian fatality occurred July 4, just south of Dewey Beach town limits, between Anchor Way and Seagull Drive. A Rehoboth couple – Roy and Helene Love – was hit by a Lincoln Aviator while crossing Route 1. Roy Love, 79, was pronounced dead at Beebe Medical Center. Helene Love, 75, was airlifted to Christiana Medical Center and was listed in critical condition. Officials at Christiana said July 8 her condition had moved up to fair.
State Police Master Cpl. Gary Fournier said the Loves were not at a crosswalk when they were struck.
The driver of the Lincoln – Washington, D.C., resident Matthew O’Connor, 25 – was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and later released. According to a press release from state police, O’Connor could face further charges once investigation of the incident is complete.
Pedestrian injuries have been a regular occurrence in recent months.
Robert Flanagan, 55, of Dover was rollerblading on Rehoboth Avenue Extended March 17, when he was hit by a vehicle in front of Big Sissies Bar & Grill.
State Trooper Matthew Rosner hit Brian McDermott, 24, of Bryn Mawr, Pa., May 26, as he was walking along the shoulder of Route 1, north of Dewey Beach.
Gary Zakarian, 55, of Smyrna died June 8 as he crossed Route 1 north of Dewey Beach and was struck by a Jeep driven by Felton resident Brandon Jones.
Jerry Henry, 24, of Millsboro was struck June 17 as he tried to cross Route 1 near Chick-fil-A in heavy, slow-moving traffic.
Unlike the July 4 incident, no charges have been filed in any of these crashes. State police said July 8 no charges will be filed against Rosner, the trooper who struck McDermott, but an investigation is ongoing in the accident involving Jones.
According to Delaware law, bicyclists have all the rights and responsibilities of a vehicle driver, including obeying traffic signals and riding on the right side of the road. Both pedestrians and bicyclists are required to use a flashlight or bicycle light after dark.
“Down here, it’s just a free-for-all,” Finley said. “In Dewey Beach especially.” Finley said both pedestrians and bicyclists are on the roadway at night without lights.
Finley said even pedi-cabs, or rickshaws, carrying passengers often ignore the rules of the road. “They’re running red lights,” he said. “It’s just an incredible situation.”
Finley blames local police for failing to cite pedestrians. Both Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach police departments are doing a terrible job of enforcing the laws for pedestrian safety, he said. “What’s more of a priority than saving someone’s life?” he asked. “Half the time I see them there’s three or four of them gathered around, sitting there talking.”
Bicycle safety checkpoint stations, which have popped up on Route 1 in recent months, have not made any difference, Finley said. “The people stopping there are the people that are not part of the problem in the beginning,” he said.
“The bodies are going to continue to pile up over the years until someone does something about this,” he said.
Dewey Beach Police Sgt. Cliff Dempsey said most of the pedestrian injuries have occurred outside Dewey Beach town limits, including the July 4 accident. “We’re not seeing a problem. It’s on the outskirts of town – the Forgotten Mile,” he said. “We’ve been very lucky.”
Dempsey said most people in Dewey Beach obey traffic laws, and police regularly enforce laws for vehicles and pedestrians. “A gross majority of people are obeying the traffic laws,” he said. “We’re very strict on vehicles not stopping at crosswalks.”
He also said the town’s seasonal police force’s spends a lot of time directing people to crosswalks. “It’s a high priority,” Dempsey said. Police issue tickets for jaywalkers, but not every time, he said.
Dewey Beach is also planning to purchase pedestrian barricades to keep people out of the road at night.
Task force to examine Route 1 safety
Finley said pedestrians and bicyclists should not be allowed on Route 1 after dark. House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf said he would not consider banning pedestrians on Route 1, and the public would not likely support a ban on people crossing Route 1.
But state officials are taking steps to address the problem. Legislators passed House Resolution 22 in the early morning hours of July 1, just before wrapping up the 147th General Assembly.
The resolution, sponsored by Schwartzkopf, creates a task force to study pedestrian safety on Route 1, from the Nassau Bridge in Lewes to the southern limits of Dewey Beach.
The task force will include state, county and municipal legislators and representatives from the Department of Transportation, Delaware State Police, Rehoboth Fire Company and Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce.
Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said he would like to install a four-way intersection on Route 1 near Glade Road. He said the intersection could include a pedestrian crosswalk, although, he said, crosswalks are not always effective. “They cost a lot of money, and they don’t work,” he said.
Schwartzkopf said he would also like to see more lighting on Route 1, so motorists could see pedestrians and bicyclists after dark.
“Obviously, education is a big part of it,” he said. “Almost every one of the fatalities has been pedestrian error.”
Schwartzkopf said most people know the law, but they choose not to follow it; others follow the law, but fail to use common sense. “I see mothers walking hand-in-hand with little toddlers across the highway,” he said. “It scares the hell out of me.”
Schwartzkopf said the task force would begin by examining the details and circumstances surrounding recent pedestrian and bicyclist injuries and fatalities. Then, he said, the group can start to come up with possible solutions. “I want to hear what other people have to suggest,” he said.
The task force will submit recommendations for improvements to engineering, infrastructure, education and lighting by Jan. 31, 2014.
“I’m not sure what we can do,” Schwartzkopf said. “We’re going to kick it around and see what we can come up with.”
(Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately identified the driver of the vehicle that struck Gary Zakarian.)