Lighting the way to safer crosswalks

Good things can come from tragedy.

That's one lesson of the crosswalk safety system Michael Harrison of Windsor invented two decades ago.

In 1991, Santa Rosa had an alarming spike in crosswalk accidents in which 39 people were hit by cars. Six of them died.

One of the drivers who killed a pedestrian was a friend of Harrison's. It was the classic situation in which the driver said he didn't see the elderly man, who was out for ice cream as part of his nightly routine.

"He was obviously upset for some time," Harrison said of his guilt-laden friend.

"It got me thinking about what it did to the individual — the motorist," he said. "Everyone usually thinks of the pedestrian."

Harrison, a corporate pilot at the time, drew his inspiration from runway lights. Why not a similar lighting system to help improve pedestrian safety?

He came up with an embedded flashing amber light system on each side of the crosswalk to alert motorists to the presence of a pedestrian. And so his LightGuard System was born.

Nowadays they are in use in many states and closer to home in Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Sebastopol, Rohnert Park, Sebastopol, Windsor and Healdsburg.

Among the next crosswalks to get the in-road warning light system is likely to be one in Cloverdale where two boys were struck and seriously injured by a pickup truck on Halloween night.

The same crosswalk on South Cloverdale Boulevard at Healdsburg Avenue was the scene of a nighttime fatality last summer when a 68-year-old woman was struck by a pickup.

In both instances, the drivers said they didn't see the people in the crosswalk.

The accidents led to a public outcry for the city to do more to improve the safety of the darkened crossing, including adding more overhead lights.

Last week, a committee consisting of two City Council members, the police chief and other officials recommended more overhead lighting at the intersection, and the LightGuard system too.

The Cloverdale City Council is scheduled to take up the matter Wednesday night. If they approve the approximate $55,000 system as anticipated, it could be in place in three to four weeks, according to city officials.

Harrison estimates there are close to 2,000 of his crosswalk systems in place, including most of the Sunbelt states, as well as places like Nebraska, Ohio and Washington state.

In San Francisco, they can be found outside City Hall, and at the airport terminal. There are about 30 at the Miami airport to help pedestrians cross safely from the parking structures to the terminals.

In Rohnert Park, the city installed a LightGuard crosswalk on Southwest Boulevard at Almond Street last summer, justified by the fact it is used by school children and there are no stop signs or traffic lights.

"Motorists can see those (LightGuard) lights flashing down the road, maybe even before they see the pedestrian," said Rick Pedroncelli, Rohnert Park senior engineer technician.

Pedroncelli said the flashing light crosswalk is not a panacea.

"A light is not going to save somebody. A painted line is not going to save somebody from getting hit by a car," he said. "The biggest thing is education, to get people to look both ways and make sure vehicles are stopping."

Harrison, 63, is on at least his 10th version of the crosswalk system, which started with tinkering in his garage and evolved into a company headquartered near the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, with about a dozen employees and about $2 million in annual revenues.

It followed years of trial and error, then testing, before getting approval from state and federal regulators for the traffic safety device.

He had to develop LED lights strong enough to stand up to punishment from semi-trucks and snowplows. Each system has a three-year warranty. Some incorporate solar power. They either have push buttons or are automatically activated when a pedestrian steps into the crossing.

He's had to fight legal battles to protect his patent from infringement by competitors, but Harrison says his company can't be beat when it comes to longevity and product reliability.

Former Santa Rosa Police Chief Sal Rosano, an early believer in Harrison, helped him secure money from the city of Santa Rosa to build prototypes of the crosswalk system.

Later, Rosano invested some of his own money to get the company started. He now sits on the board of directors.

"It certainly alerts drivers to the presence of pedestrians," Rosano said, noting traffic engineering studies have demonstrated as much, especially in darkness, fog and rain.

There's one thing that's hard to quantify:

"You never know how many serious injuries or fatalities you've avoided," Rosano said.

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