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Vision Zero

Andover Town Officials Ignored Residents’ Warnings About Site of Fatal Crash

A wide intersection with a small island planted with flowers in the foreground. The street is lined with multi-story buildings with small businesses on the ground floor. A group of three teens crosses the crosswalk in the middle distance.

Elm Square in downtown Andover, Mass., at the intersection of Elm Street (left) and Main Street (center).

In the past year, town residents have repeatedly asked Andover town officials to take responsibility for a pattern of close calls and near-misses at the downtown intersection where a truck driver killed a 5-year-old girl in a crosswalk last month, but the Town Manager and police department neglected to act on those warnings, according to town email records.

In May, a truck driver approaching Andover's Main Street from Elm Street drove into the intersection's crosswalk to strike and kill Sidney Olson, aged 5, in front of her family.

Several eyewitnesses told reporters on the scene that the family had a walk signal when the perpetrator drove their truck into the crosswalk.

"We worried it was just a matter of time before something happened," Andrew Lewine, a member of the Walk/Bike Andover safety advocacy group, told StreetsblogMASS. "I got a little frustrated (with the lack of action from town officials). I told them it feels like they’re prioritizing the convenience of drivers over the safety of pedestrians here."

According to the MassDOT crash database, before Sidney Olson's killing, there had been 35 reported crashes at this same intersection since the start of 2018, including 7 that had resulted in at least one injury.

About a quarter-mile to the northeast of the Elm-Main intersection, another driver struck and killed a 78-year-old pedestrian on Elm Street almost exactly one year earlier, on April 27, 2022.

Near misses, bureaucratic brush-offs

"I'm writing as a concerned citizen/parent about the intersection in front of the library," wrote Margot Dillon in a June 3, 2022 email to Paul Materazzo, the town's Director of Planning, and Glen Ota, an officer in the town's Police Department. "We've had three dicey crossings at the location in the past two weeks. The most recent (incident) being our 8-year-old daughter nearly clipped by a car as it turned into us."

Dillon went on to request measures like "no turn on red" signage and an exclusive pedestrian phase at the traffic signal, which would show red lights for vehicles on all approaches to the intersections while pedestrians would get walk signals.

A white SUV blocks a crosswalk while a pedestrian steps up onto the adjacent curb to try and get by. On the other side of the crosswalk a "walk" symbol is visible on the pedestrian signal. Beyond are several small businesses in a brick multi-story building.
The pedestrian in the Bruins jersey actually has a walk signal here (visible on the left edge of the photo, just under the "for lease" sign).

In a June 6 response, Officer Ota rejected those suggestions, claiming that "the exclusive pedestrian phase would be lengthy and cause major queueing on both legs of the intersection" – in other words, because people in cars might have to wait in a longer line at the traffic light.

StreetsblogMASS reached out on Thursday to Officer Ota to get more details on that decision.

Ota did not respond. But we did get a call back from Andover Police Lt. Edward Guy, who bristled at the line of questioning.

“It's gross and despicable that you would even ask about that," said Guy. "You want to sit there and assert that somebody died as a causation of a decision that was not made."

Guy also repeatedly referred to Olson's killing as an "accident," even though the circumstances of the crash allegedly remain under investigation.

An exclusive pedestrian phase and a no turn on red would not be feasible at this intersection... The exclusive pedestrian phase would be lengthy and cause major queueing.

Andover Police Safety Officer Glen Ota

Andover's town website describes Ota as a "safety officer." Guy confirmed that his job was to work "on safety issues and ways to mitigate problems."

StreetsblogMASS asked Guy to clarify whether Ota, as the town's safety officer, actually has any responsibilities over a pattern of dangerous crashes in a prominent downtown intersection.

"Glen Ota is not responsible," answered Lt. Guy. "His responsibility is to look into safety issues."

Walk signals do not meet standards

In another email thread with town officials, Lewine, the member of the Walk/Bike Andover safety advocacy group, repeatedly asked town officials to fix an inadequate "clearance interval" on the intersection's walk signals.

An overhead view of a wide, X-shaped intersection, with measurements of each of the four crosswalks on each leg. The Main Street crosswalks, in the upper left and lower right, are 51 feet and 55 feet wide, respectively, while the cross-street crosswalks in the upper right and lower left are 44 feet and 48 feet, respectively. Two traffic signal mast arms and their shadows are visible in the center of the photo.
Courtesy of Andrew Lewine. Main Street is the wider of the two streets, running from the upper left to lower right; the cross-street in the upper left corner is Elm Street, and the cross street in the lower right is Central Street. The Andover town library is just out of the frame to the left.

The clearance interval is the period of time when a signal shows a flashing red hand.

According to national design standards, that interval should be long enough to allow a pedestrian crossing in the crosswalk who left the curb at the beginning of the interval "to travel at a walking speed of 3.5 feet per second" to the other side.

That standard is based on average walking speeds among able-bodied adults. Guidelines encourage even longer walk intervals at intersections where there are larger numbers of children, or people with impaired mobility.

By Lewine's measurements, the crosswalk across Elm Street where last month's fatal crash happened is about 44 feet wide. At 3.5 feet per second, a pedestrian would need 13 seconds to cross Elm Street safely.

The adjacent crosswalks across Main Street are longer – one is 51 feet, and the other is 55 feet wide. Under national standards, those walk signals should have clearance intervals of 15 and 17 seconds, respectively.

However, the signal gives pedestrians only 11 seconds, in any direction.

Lewine first alerted town officials to the problem in an email dated August 9, 2022. In May, after Syndey Olson's death, Lewine raised the issue again, but Town Manager Andrew Flanagan responded, on May 25, that the town could not make any changes without MassDOT's approval.

A subsequent report by Dave Copeland in the Andover News contradicted that assertion. MassDOT officials told Copeland that "Andover can increase the amount of time walk signals are lit by simply notifying the state."

'This has been the town’s highest priority.'

On Thursday, Andrew Flanagan, Andover's Town Manager, told StreetsblogMASS that his staff are finally making changes in the wake of Olson's killing.

"It’s been all hands on deck, and this has been the town’s highest priority," Flanagan said.

Flanagan noted that Andover's Town Meeting had already approved a $50,000 appropriation in the town's capital budget on May 1 to hire a consultant to study the intersection.

Since Olson's killing, though, the town has accelerated a few low-cost improvements.

Flanagan said that the town has moved the stop line back from the Elm Street crosswalk so that stopped vehicles will have better sight lines into the crosswalk in front of them.

Flanagan also told StreetsblogMASS that the town had finally adjusted the intersection's walk signals to give pedestrians more time to cross.

The Elm Street crosswalk in downtown Andover where a truck driver struck and killed a 5-year-old girl in May. The town has since made some minor changes, such as re-painting the stop bar further back from the crosswalk so that drivers can more clearly see pedestrians in front of them. But the timing of the walk signals remains out of compliance with national standards.

However, when we visited the intersection on Thursday afternoon, the clearance intervals still only gave pedestrians 11 seconds.

Meanwhile, the crash has also galvanized Andover's parents and street safety advocates. Sidney Olson's father has joined with other concerned parents to create a new advocacy group they're calling Sidney's Rainbows.

The group will join officials from the Town of Andover to host a safety forum Thursday evening.

The event will be Thursday, June 8, at 7 p.m. at Doherty Middle School in Andover. 

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