People die in wars. They die of illness and old age. They die violently and all too routinely in the nation's drug-plagued big cities.
But 21-year-old college students aren't supposed to die on late summer afternoons in Ocean City while walking across a street on their way to a waitress job on the Boardwalk.
That's what happened to Casey Feldman, a Fordham University student from southeastern Pennsylvania who was struck by a van and killed July 17 at Central Avenue and 14th Street - a four-way intersection with stop signs at each corner.
Feldman's tragic death is now one more sad statistic in a troubling trend - 86 pedestrians were struck and killed in New Jersey in the first half of 2009, an increase of 30 percent.
Police say Anthony Lomonaco, 58, of Middle Township, came to a full stop at the intersection but didn't see Feldman in the far crosswalk. He was charged with careless driving and failing to yield to a pedestrian.
Traffic experts aren't sure why pedestrian deaths are up. We don't know why either. But we do know this: New Jersey's law requiring cars to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks - and the sharply increased enforcement of that law in some towns, but not others, in recent years - has created a tremendous amount of dangerous confusion. And maybe that has something to do with the increase in pedestrian deaths. No one - driver or pedestrian - is completely sure anymore what the other is going to do.
The law says motorists must yield to any pedestrian who is "within" a crosswalk, marked or unmarked (unless the intersection is controlled by a traffic signal). But pedestrians can't count on motorists in all lanes knowing the law; one might stop, but will the others? Motorists who do stop can't count on the driver behind them stopping; do the right thing, and you can end up getting rear-ended.
And all the painted crosswalks and signs telling pedestrians they have the right of way are giving them a false sense of security.
Furthering the confusion is that some towns enforce the law more stringently than others, and some towns enforce the law more stringently in some parts of their municipalities than in others. The whole situation is absurd - and dangerous. Traffic safety is about predictability, about knowing what the other guy is going to do. But this has turned intersections into free-for-alls.
We understand that pedestrians have as much right to the road as vehicles. And motorists are the ones inside a ton or two of steel capable of killing a person. The cars should yield. But pedestrians need to remember that they might not.
The law says pedestrians still have an obligation to exercise due care for safety. In the wake of Feldman's death, Ocean City Police Lt. Steven Ang sensibly urged pedestrians to make eye contact with drivers. The real answer, however, is for state lawmakers and traffic-safety officials to rethink the issues of pedestrian safety and pedestrian rights in New Jersey.
Posted in Editorials on Sunday, July 26, 2009 3:10 am Updated: 2:42 pm.