Tires screeching and sirens blaring, Chicago police cars took off from a Near North Side intersection every couple of minutes Tuesday starting at noon to chase down drivers who failed to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks.
Never mind that in many of the instances the pedestrians were undercover police officers, or that the patrol officers assigned to the sting operation appeared to ignore bicyclists, including several riding Divvy bikes, who plowed through the crosswalks and steered narrowly around pedestrians attempting to cross Clark Street at Germania Place.
The scene marked the first of 60 pedestrian safety enforcement stings planned for this year to draw attention to the city's 3,000-plus accidents and average of 30 deaths a year caused by vehicles hitting people. The operations will be conducted close to schools, senior citizen housing and busy retail areas, officials said.
Chicago Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld called the current accident toll unacceptable as she discussed the problem with reporters while standing on a sidewalk near Clark and Germania. The intersection was recently outfitted with "stop for pedestrians'' street-level signs and a pedestrian refuge island along the median of Clark designed to give walkers who need extra time a safe place to stop midway through the crosswalk.
"We are all pedestrians at some point and we all have to do our part,'' Scheinfeld said. She added that pedestrians also should be cautious to avoid danger.
Motorists are required to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks under a state law that took effect in 2010. The law, which carries a possible $120 fine in Chicago and up to $500 in some other jurisdictions, replaced a requirement that drivers yield to pedestrians and stop when necessary.
Chicago police last year issued more than 1,200 tickets for failure to stop for pedestrians at crosswalks, officials said.
"It's pretty rough here,'' said Joanne Alberstein, a resident of the 1500 block of North Clark. "But LaSalle Street is even worse. They drive like it is a racetrack at night.''
Ken Egan, a 20-year resident of the neighborhood, said he supports the police crackdown, saying it's a good use of taxpayer dollars.
"I think they are giving it their best shot. I don't know what else they can do,'' said Egan, who was out for a walk with his dog. "I just wish they were a little quieter about it (to catch more drivers). I count one, two, three police cars.''
City officials say their goal is to eliminate half of serious pedestrian injuries during the next five years and the other half five years after that.
It will take a lot to get there, judging from the behavior of drivers Tuesday at the sting site, which was outfitted with signs a half-block prior to the police operation warning drivers about the special enforcement.
"Every day there are about seven to eight traffic-related pedestrian injuries in the city of Chicago, and that's too many. We can do much better,'' said Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance.
Despite the high-profile signage and a flurry of activity caused by TV camera crews filming the intersection, a number of motorists failed to stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk during just the brief news conference held by city and state transportation officials.
A line of police cars, engines running, waited on Germania for drivers violating the law. Each time it occurred, the first squad car in line gave chase, pulled the vehicle over and wrote a ticket, officials said. Many of the vehicles stopped by police during the sting were taxicabs.
Asked by a reporter why the officers in police cars did not go after any of the bicyclists who violated the stop-for-pedestrians law, including a pair of cyclists on Divvy bikes who weaved around two elderly women in a crosswalk, Chicago police Sgt. Scott Slavin said the entourage of reporters may have blocked the officers' view of the violation.
"We can't see everything,'' Slavin said.
Also, questioned why pedestrian decoys were necessary to the sting operation when violations by drivers involving ordinary pedestrians seemed to be abundant, Slavin responded: "What if there were no pedestrians here?''
A passing truck driver, wise to the situation, inched to a stop before the crosswalk as one of the police pedestrian decoys stepped off the curb to cross Clark.
Noticing all the TV cameras filming him, the driver yelled out his open window, "I want everybody to know that I'm a safe driver.''
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