4/26/21: THE FATALITY ON OCEAN BOULEVARD AT THE CHICAHAUK BEACH ACCESS: HOW MANY MORE SECONDS WOULD HAVE PREVENTED A TRAGEDY?

The crossing sign on the east side of Ocean Boulevard at the Ocean Boulevard-Chicahauk Trail intersection. The beach access is visible in the background at left.

How many seconds do you think a pedestrian walking with the crossing sign in the crosswalk at the intersection of Ocean Boulevard and Chicahauk Trail needs to get safely across Ocean Boulevard so he or she can use the beach access?

Suppose the pedestrian is mobility impaired and walks slowly, is hauling a lot of beach equipment, or is walking with small children. How many seconds do you think these variously situated pedestrians need?

How many seconds do you think the crossing sign at the most popular beach access in Southern Shores currently allows pedestrians to get safely across Ocean Boulevard at Chicahauk Trail?

A 65-year-old man from Connecticut who was in Southern Shores for the wedding of his son was struck by a vehicle 10 days ago while walking in this crosswalk and later died of his injuries at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital.

According to police and local media accounts, Robert Henry Ouellette, Jr., of Watertown, Conn., was trying to cross over to the Chicahauk beach access about 8:20 p.m. on Friday, April 16, with a group of family members and friends when he was hit by a vehicle heading north.

Mr. Ouelette was reportedly a longtime baseball and football coach at Watertown High School who had retired.

Southern Shores police reported that northbound traffic had been stopped at the red light when some members of Mr. Ouelette’s party crossed Ocean Boulevard safely. Mr. Ouelette and his wife, however, followed them after the traffic light turned green and the pedestrian sign signaled no crossing.

According to police, Mr. Ouelette waited for one car to pass, but was struck by the next car. His wife crossed safely ahead of him.  

Police determined that the driver of the car that hit him, William Thomas King, Jr., 60, of Fort Washington, Md., was not speeding or impaired. No charges were filed or are expected to be filed against Mr. King.

This was a preventable tragedy—and not just because that Mr. King could have been more alert, ensuring that no one was in the intersection before he entered it, or that Mr. Ouelette could have observed the crossing sign and held back.

No, this tragedy could have been prevented if the crossing sign and the traffic light were timed to give pedestrians ample time to cross the busy thoroughfare safely.

How much time do you think is ample?

The State of North Carolina has jurisdiction over N.C. Hwy. 12, which runs through Southern Shores as Ocean Boulevard and Duck Road, and is in charge of maintaining the traffic signals and devices at the Ocean Boulevard-Chicahauk Trail intersection.

But the Town of Southern Shores also has responsibility for the road and the people who use it, as well as the traffic flow. Through its police department, it has on-the-ground oversight. It knows the road conditions and can assess whether public hazards exist that could be corrected and take measures to correct them. The N.C. Dept. of Transportation is not likely to deny a request by the Southern Shores police to make a change.

It is unquestionably foreseeable that people will be crossing to the beach at this well-used intersection at all hours of the day and night, and that some of them will cross against the traffic light and do exactly what Mr. Ouelette did.

The answer to how many seconds the crossing sign at this intersection currently allows for a pedestrian to walk across the road—at least today when we conducted an on-the-scene experiment—is no more than 15 seconds, if you’re quick off the starting block.

The answer to whether 15 seconds are ample is no. Emphatically no.

(Shockingly, we also discovered today that bicyclists and pedestrians who cross U.S. Hwy 158 at its intersection with Kitty Hawk Road near the Kitty Hawk Post Office have only 22 seconds to do so safely before the light changes! Nobody who is mobility-challenged should even attempt to cross.)

In our exercise in Southern Shores this afternoon, we pressed the button that a pedestrian must press at the Ocean Boulevard-Chicahauk Trail intersection just to get traffic to stop—the crossing sign did not work for us otherwise—waited for the sign to give us the go-ahead, and then counted the seconds.

Two to three seconds elapsed before the sign started counting down the seconds, and it started its count at 13. Thirteen. We were stunned. We thought we would get at least 20 seconds and considered 20 even insufficient. (That was before we knew about the 22-second hustle at Hwy. 158-Kitty Hawk Road.)

After the crossing sign reached zero, the traffic stopped at the red light had to wait about 4 seconds before the light turned green. Just four seconds.

Yes, it is still the shoulder-season; yes, fewer people are crossing the Ocean Boulevard thoroughfare to go to the beach than will be crossing during the summertime; and yes, most of these few are not loaded down with beach equipment or with babies and children.

Presumably the timing of the crossing sign will increase with the high season. But by how much? And will it be enough to ensure safety for the vacationing public, which tends to be more distracted, slower, and not as quick “on the gas” as the drivers waiting at the red light?

We wonder: Have there been other pedestrians struck in the crosswalk under circumstances similar to those that Mr. Ouelette experienced? What is the accident history at this intersection?  

There are a number of ways to make the Ocean Boulevard-Chicahauk Trail intersection safer for pedestrians.

You can put up road signs before the intersection cautioning drivers to watch out for pedestrians.

You can lower the speed limit before the intersection so that drivers will have slowed down considerably from the 45 mph–or 35 mph in the summertime–that they can legally drive on this stretch of N.C. Hwy. 12.

You can put lights at the crosswalk, on either side of the road and in the crosswalk itself, so drivers will be more aware of pedestrians.

You also can time the crossing sign so that pedestrians have at least 60 seconds or longer to cross the road in the summertime and at least 30 seconds to cross it in the off- and shoulder-seasons. Further, you can increase the time lapse between the expiration of the crossing sign and the traffic light’s change from red to green to at least 10 seconds.

If it was not on notice before, the Town of Southern Shores certainly is on notice now about this intersection and the safety hazards it poses to pedestrians. The red flag is waving large.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 4/26/21

3 thoughts on “4/26/21: THE FATALITY ON OCEAN BOULEVARD AT THE CHICAHAUK BEACH ACCESS: HOW MANY MORE SECONDS WOULD HAVE PREVENTED A TRAGEDY?

  1. There is a similar situation at the crossing at Hillcrest where there is the town beach. I discovered that the crossing light is very short. I am not disabled and move well but I have to hustle to cross Route 12 at this light.

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  2. I agree, I hope the crossing signal time increases during the season. As sad as this situation was, it could have all been avoided if the pedestrian had obeyed the traffic signals and just waited for another light cycle. It was determined he and his companion crossed after the light changed. In his haste to keep up with his group he made an error that can never be taken back. The length of the crossing light would make no difference if pedestrians are impatient.

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