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UNLV seeks scientific way to curb pedestrian death

By Kyle Hansen

Las Vegas Sun

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 9 2011 4:15 p.m. MST

Pedestrians use a Danish offset as they cross Maryland Parkway near UNLV Monday, Nov. 7, 2011. One recent study claimed that the city is the sixth-most dangerous place in the nation for pedestrians. There have been different approaches to the problem. Pedestrian bridges were added to the Strip. Police have been ticketing jaywalkers as well as motorists who ignore crosswalks.

The Las Vegas Sun, Steve Marcus, Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — A 15-year-old boy hit and killed on a Henderson street, a trick-or-treater dead after being hit by a car, a woman dead after being struck near Nellis Air Force Base and two pedestrians hospitalized after they were hit on the valley's most famous stretch of road — the Las Vegas Strip.

The two weeks around Halloween have been a bad time to be a pedestrian in Las Vegas. Four pedestrians died and five more were injured.

It sounds abnormal, but it really isn't that strange for Las Vegas. One recent study claimed that the city is the sixth-most dangerous place in the nation for pedestrians.

A 1979 Las Vegas Sun article said the city had become an "international paradise for jaywalkers."

Old-timers may remember a similar run of pedestrian accidents that killed 16 people during the first three months of 1995. That's one person every 3 1/2 days.

More recently, in the three-year period that ended July 31, there were 84 pedestrian deaths and more than 2,000 injuries from 2,060 crashes in Clark County, according to data from the Nevada Transportation Department.

There have been different approaches to the problem. Pedestrian bridges were added to the Strip. Police have been ticketing jaywalkers as well as motorists who ignore crosswalks — at times using a turkey-suited officer as decoy. Crossing guards now wield stop signs with flashing lights.

The next round of safety enhancements is being researched in a small, windowless laboratory on the third floor of University of Nevada, Las Vegas' Science and Engineering Building.

Here, in a room equipped with a dozen computers, a large table holds models of intersections, some complete with working stoplights.

Assistant Professor Alexander Paz emerges from his office, where the small whiteboard is covered with the diagram of an intersection. He explains some of the projects his students are working on.

Some are far-flung, like the proposal to lower two roads next to the UNLV campus so pedestrian bridges could be built at ground level, where people are more likely to use them.

"It's expensive, of course, but very efficient," Paz said.

This semester, a group is studying the prospect of installing infrared devices at crosswalks to detect pedestrians. The devices would then activate traffic signals or warning lights to stop traffic for the pedestrians, eliminating the need to push buttons to activate the lights, which some pedestrians don't do before crossing a street.

The projects aren't without precedent for effecting change. Before Paz's time at the university, the county readjusted a crosswalk near campus after a graduate student proposed reshaping the median into an "S-curve" to force pedestrians crossing the street to face oncoming traffic.

But the really exciting stuff, at least to Paz and his associates at the Transportation Research Center, is the creation of a massive database, with input from law enforcement agencies, emergency responders and University Medical Center. The goal is to gather all of the data possible on every accident in the region for the past decade.

After a fatal or serious-injury accident, police investigate and record a massive amount of information about the crash. But that data isn't always integrated with other sources of information, such as victim medical records or the design and operation of the roadway, Paz said.

If researchers can gather all the data possible, they will get a better picture of how to avoid accidents, he said.

But there is still a missing piece to the puzzle, Paz said.

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