State officials have approved a plan to upgrade crosswalks in Commerce, less than a month after a truck hit and seriously injured a student.
Texas A&M-Commerce Dean of Students Tomas Aguirre says the plan is to install the new system, known as a Hawk beacon, within months. The system is similar to a standard crosswalk, except that it operates when activated rather than on a timer. Drivers will see what appears to be a red light, requiring them to stop.
“How it’s different from the current system that we have in place is that it really doesn’t provide or allow options. So right now what happens is the light starts to flash and some cars stop, some cars slow down — and some actually speed up,” Aguirre said.
Police say the car that struck and critically injured a Commerce freshman in early September was speeding. The accident, the first of two around the university in a week, occurred at a site where several students have been injured in recent years.
Aguirre said the plan received swift approval after the university proposed it to the Department of Transportation after the latest accident.
“It moved pretty fast, relatively speaking,” he said. “It was pretty impressive, especially with my previous experience with stuff like this.”
Before the accident, Aguirre said, university officials struggled to resolve the issue because of difficulty coordinating with multiple agencies requiring approval.
“They’ve been trying to correct these issues for a while. With the most recent accident, again, we connected with local authorities, most importantly TXDOT because they’re ultimately responsible for those roads,” he said. “If they were roads within the campus we would have more autonomy in terms of how we regulate them.”
Aguirre said that in meetings with state officials over the past month, the interim university president was “very clear that this was a very serious concern of his, as it should be, seeing as they are our students, and that we have a student who had been injured. We needed to come to some sort of solution, and we needed to do it very, very quickly.”
The new system is expected to be installed within the next few months.
After the latest accident, the crosswalk was outfitted with new features — overhead lights and “rumble” strips that jolt drivers to attention on their approach.
Derek Preas, the university’s director of risk management, said those upgrades were already improving driver performance in the area.
But he said the next upgrades were expected to make a big difference.
“I think that in about four months, everybody is going to see that the system that’s going to be installed out there is really going to help everything,” he said.
Preas explained that while the science behind the Pedestrian Hybrid Beacon is new, it was carefully selected and demonstrated to work.
“This was started in Arizona about six years ago. … It’s not established technology. It’s new technology that’s there. And it shows to increase driver yielding by 90 percent.”
But he said that the university can’t depend on any one solution alone.
“Statistically, when you look at it, there’s very few accidents. But that’s not how we look at it. … We look at what type of environment are our students in.
“We’ve always wondered what can we do better, what can be done better out there. We’ve done safety campaigns. We’ve done training for people. It’s students crossing the highway. It’s always going to be a concern — no matter what we have out there.”
Echoing Aguirre, Preas said he was surprised by the speed at which the various agencies responsible for the area surrounding the crosswalk were moving.
“What you’re seeing right now is a collaboration between the state, and the city, and the university on making the absolute best decision for what’s best for our students and commuters in this community,” he said.
The county will vote early next month on a bond issue to fund the crosswalks and other safety measures in the area surrounding the university.
One of those commissioners, Jim Latham, had been urging city and state officials to fix the crosswalk in the months leading up to the accident.
That’s because he nearly struck a student while driving down Culver Street months earlier.
“I didn’t see anybody because the bright lights from the cars were in my eyes. I inched forward, and as I did, I saw legs. And it scared me. And I realized that I (very well) could have hit a student. And that was terrifying to me. And I panicked.
“Of course, the students never knew they were in danger. They never knew any alarm from me. Nothing. But I knew that we had to do something because this was a bad situation.”
Latham said that multiple other ideas were being considered in the long-run. One, elevated crosswalks, is under consideration. But he and others said the main problem, in addition to cost, was how to accommodate handicapped students.
“We’re not limited to the number of things we can do to prevent future accidents. I think that it’s going to be step by step. And I think these lights are the first step that’s really going to make a big difference, Latham said.
He added: “Everybody is interested. Everybody wants to get it done.”