Some new traffic signs have popped up around Vienna, but unlike traditional stop or speed limit signs, these yellow, reflective placards are intended more for sidewalk users than road users.
Volunteers with the Vienna Pedestrian Advisory Committee (PAC) started posting the signs on pedestrian signal poles around town in late September for their “Eye to Eye” campaign, which encourages walkers to make eye contact with drivers before stepping into a crosswalk.
The campaign’s launch coincides with National Pedestrian Safety Month, which occurs every October. It also comes on the heels of a new Virginia law that requires drivers to fully stop, not just yield, when pedestrians are crossing.
However, PAC chair Angel Sorrell says “Eye to Eye” was in the works months before that legislative change took effect on July 1.
“What we found in the Town of Vienna is that, coming out of Covid, there’s just a lot more walking around town, which we love and we’d like to support that,” Sorrell said. “While that worked well when there weren’t a lot of cars on the road, as cars have increased, we’re seeing that pedestrians are crossing intersections and really not looking and making eye contact and crossing the intersections in a safe way.”
Pedestrian safety was a nationwide concern before the pandemic, but fatalities have noticeably jumped up since 2020, reaching a 41-year high of at least 7,508 deaths in 2022. In Fairfax County, 65 people were killed in traffic crashes last year — 32 of them pedestrians, the most since Virginia started regularly collecting data in 2010.
None of those deaths were in the Town of Vienna, and the national increase in pedestrian deaths has been attributed to a number of factors, including deadly road design and a trend toward large vehicles, beyond the capacity of a seven-person, all-volunteer committee to address.
But Sorrell says PAC had been “wrestling” with ways they could help keep pedestrians safe when committee member Brian Land suggested installing signs that encourage eye contact like ones he’d seen while on vacation in Nashville.
“We worked with the town and said that, as volunteers, we would post these signs in a temporary fashion at really high-traffic intersections, even some with the flashing signs,” Sorrell said. “We would install them around town in a temporary fashion through the fall. So, that’s what we’ve done.”
Fixed around eye level on poles with pedestrian crossing buttons, the signs feature two stick figures — one on foot and one seated in a car — with an arrow between their eyes to indicate that they’re looking at each other.
“LOOK! Make eye contact before crossing,” they say.
Sorrell says PAC purchased 38 signs and placed two to four at busy intersections, depending on how many each site could accommodate. The volunteers plan to leave the signs at their current locations through the fall before moving them to different intersections around town about once every quarter.
The “Eye to Eye” campaign joins a slew of efforts by Fairfax County to address the recent uptick in pedestrian fatalities, from crackdowns on aggressive driving by the police to funding for crosswalks, trail maintenance and other pedestrian and bicycle projects.
So far, the county has seen seven pedestrian fatalities, most recently on Richmond Highway this past Saturday (Oct. 7). At this time in 2022, there were 14 fatalities.
In addition to “Eye to Eye,” PAC has been working with town staff to identify and fill in sidewalk gaps, an effort that has quickened in pace over the past year. Around May, the committee also started an initiative to help residents maintain clean sidewalks and address overgrown bushes and tree limbs that might create an obstacle for pedestrians.
“We just needed to have more safety guardrails really put around our pedestrians and crosswalks,” Sorrell said. “[The General Assembly was] working at it from a legislative side to change that law that just went into effect. But we really wanted to arm pedestrians with the tools that they need to be successful in crosswalks.”
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