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Kirkland mother outraged at city's response to dangerous crosswalk her son was struck in

Jenny and Chris Guempel with their children, Josh, 17 and Nicole, 14, at their Kirkland home. Josh was struck by a car in a crosswalk near Juanita High School on May 15, while his sister looked on. His wrist was broken, amongst other injuries. It was the same dangerous crosswalk his mother complained about to the city in March.  - Carrie Wood/Kirkland Reporter
Jenny and Chris Guempel with their children, Josh, 17 and Nicole, 14, at their Kirkland home. Josh was struck by a car in a crosswalk near Juanita High School on May 15, while his sister looked on. His wrist was broken, amongst other injuries. It was the same dangerous crosswalk his mother complained about to the city in March.
— image credit: Carrie Wood/Kirkland Reporter

It’s a typical after-school scenario: dozens of Juanita High School and Kamiakin Junior High students walk home and cross Northeast 132nd Street on a Tuesday afternoon.

But some students wait more than five minutes to go through the crosswalk in the busy arterial’s 10400 block, just west of Juanita High School. Cars don’t stop. Many whip by, going faster than the 20 mph school zone, despite the white crosswalk lines that mark the street and yellow crossing signs.

When the coast is clear, some students dart across. Others wait to make eye contact with a vigilant driver, who stops to let them cross.

Kirkland resident Jenny Guempel called the City of Kirkland in March to complain about this dangerous crosswalk where her son and daughter walk to school and where her son was nearly hit by a car.

Nearly two months later, a vehicle struck her 16-year-old son, Josh, in that crosswalk on May 15.

Now, Guempel is outraged that the city hasn’t done anything about the unsafe crosswalk.

“I called the city to complain about the crosswalk and nothing has been done,” she said. “And now my son was hit in that crosswalk. I don’t feel good about it.”

Josh, his 14-year-old sister Nicole who goes to Kamiakin Junior High and a neighbor went to the crosswalk before school on May 15 at approximately 7:30 a.m.

“We walked out to the crosswalk and looked up the hill and it was clear, so we started walking and a car turned out from one of the side roads,” said Josh, noting they thought they made eye contact with the driver because it looked like he slowed down.

When they crossed the street southbound, “my sister stopped, my friend jumped forward and even if I had jumped forward or backwards, I still would have gotten hit,” said Josh, who turned 17 on Monday and is a sophomore at Juanita High School. “I was in the middle of the crosswalk and couldn’t get out of the way.”

The vehicle struck Josh so hard that his shoes flew off and he slammed into the pavement, he said. He broke his wrist, and injured his shoulders, ankle and scraped his knees and elbows. He also got a deep cut on him arm that struck and broke the vehicle’s bug guard.

“Everything happened so quickly,” said Josh, who didn’t go to school for the rest of the week due to his injuries and trauma. “An off-duty fireman four cars back came up and told me not to move and tried to calm me down because everything was hurting.”

The driver stayed on scene and put his jacket under Josh’s head. The driver said the sun made it difficult for him to see, said police. He will be cited for failure to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk, said Kirkland Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Rob Saloum.

Another woman called an ambulance and Guempel at work.

“Anytime you get that kind of a phone call your mind goes blank and you’re just freaking out,” said Guempel.

The first time her son was nearly hit, Guempel called the city on March 19.

A car had stopped to let Josh cross, but a truck behind the car didn’t. The truck rear-ended the car, which spun around and almost hit him, said Josh.

“My mom called the city to let people know to get signs that show the crosswalk is well used,” he said, noting that sometimes after school he has to wait up to 10 minutes for people to stop so he can cross Northeast 132nd Street. “I would like something to be done because I don’t want it to happen to someone else. I don’t want something to happen to my sister. I would rather have someone do something about it sooner rather than later.”

Guempel wants the same thing. In fact, in the past few years that her kids have walked to school, she has contacted the city several times to report the dangerous activity she has seen: “Police cars not stopping, school busses not stopping and cars going around the kids in the turn lane,” said Guempel, who has volunteered as a crossing guard near AG Bell Elementary for five years. “I’ve been flipped off. We’ll stand there with our arms in the air trying to get cars to stop. It’s amazing to me how many people are too busy or maybe the crosswalk is just not marked clear enough.”

According to a 2007 city traffic analysis study, the average weekday traffic along the arterial ranges from 12,000-20,000 vehicles per day. Out of 32 cross streets along the two-mile stretch, only eight of the intersections are signalized, including the intersection at Juanita High School, according to a street master study.

City collision data from 2001-2006 shows that most locations along the Northeast 132nd Street corridor have less than three accidents per year.

However, Saloum said pedestrian accidents along that corridor are "pretty rare."

"Historically, we get more pedestrian accidents in the downtown core than we do on that street," said Saloum.

The day after her son was hit, Guempel said a city crew came out and cut overhanging tree branches near the lane of the accident. But cutting branches isn’t what she’s after, she said.

“I would think that someone would have called me back right away, especially if a child was hit,” she said. “I would think more should be done than just cutting branches the next day. I would think there would be some sincere thoughts from the city and something done or showing me something’s going to be done.”

David Godfrey, transportation engineering manager for the city’s Public Works Department, said the city’s typical process for handling citizen complaints is to call them back and try to find a solution.

“We should have called her back, but we didn’t,” said Godfrey. “We just didn’t do a good job of getting back to her on that.”

Godfrey did speak with Guempel this week after the Reporter contacted the city. He said the city soon plans to put pedestrian flags at the crosswalk on Northeast 132nd Street and 105th Avenue Northeast that Guempel will volunteer to oversee.

But with many crosswalk complaints, the solution is not that simple, said Godfrey.

“The city’s original policy with pedestrian flags was if people wanted to volunteer at that crosswalk, we would install the flags,” he said, noting with budget cuts a few years ago, the city decided not to install any new pedestrian flags. “We’re a long ways from our policy because you have to manage these volunteers and that position was cut back.”

He added sometimes pedestrian flags do become available when pedestrian crosswalk lights known as Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons (RRFBs) are installed and the flags are no longer needed at a particular location. The city recently installed RRFBs at a location on Market Street where there were flags, which will now go on Northeast 132nd Street.

Godfrey said while the city doesn’t have an “iron clad” policy of which crosswalks will get signage, flags or lights, it does prioritize locations based on higher speeds, higher traffic volumes and multiple lanes. The city’s six-year (2013-2018) Capital Improvement Program also includes $70,000 every two years for crosswalk improvements.

“Right now we’re focused on trying to get in-pavement lights replaced,” said Godfrey. “But the Transportation Commission will be looking at crosswalks and working on a plan.”

He also emphasized that the City of Kirkland is a “leader in pedestrian treatments” as the first city to use pedestrian flags since 1995. There are currently more than 70 pedestrian flag locations throughout the city. More than 30 uncontrolled crosswalks also have in-pavement flashing lights.

“If you look at other cities, Kirkland is used as an example of trying to be as pedestrian-friendly as possible,” Godfrey added. “It’s important to us to try and do the best job we can. The council takes it seriously when there is any kind of collision.”

Since the accident, Josh finally went back to school on Monday.

“He was very nervous, but now they will stand there hours on end until both lanes stop or there’s no traffic at all,” said Guempel, adding her daughter wanted her to drive her to the bus stop last week because she was so shaken up and Josh has awakened at night startled by the vision of the accident.

She is satisfied that the crosswalk will soon have pedestrian flags that she will help maintain. But she hopes the city will eventually do more, such as install in-pavement lights.

For now, she urges drivers to be careful – and slow down.

“I just know being a crossing guard I see people every day on their cell phones and texting and it’s against the law,” said Guempel, noting the myriad other violations she sees.

To the driver who hit her son, she says, “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody to live with the fact that you hit somebody, but you have to pay attention because it only takes a few seconds.”

More information

Contact David Godfrey, city transportation engineering manager, with crosswalk concerns at dgodfrey@kirklandwa.gov or 425-587-3865.

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