Miami cops crack down on Brickell motorists who won’t yield to pedestrians

Making a stand for pedestrian safety at a notoriously dicey intersection, Miami motorcycle cops cracked down on Brickell Avenue motorists who failed to yield to people crossing on foot.

05/30/2012 5:00 AM

05/30/2012 8:20 PM

Pity the poor Brickell pedestrian.

Early Wednesday, a trio of uniformed Miami motorcycle cops on a special detail — ticketing motorists who fail to yield to crossing pedestrians — gamely tried to patrol the river of traffic that is Brickell Avenue’s Eighth Street intersection. They wrote tickets as fast as they could and still couldn’t keep up.

In just a bit over an hour, the officers handed out 47 tickets to surprised drivers, most of whom were turning onto Brickell off Eighth and in the process brushed by, cut off or pushed into people on foot who had the right of way in a crosswalk marked with big, fat zebra stripes.

Wednesday’s ticket tally underscored what activists and Brickell residents have long been saying: That the spine of Miami’s gleaming financial center, an avenue designed principally to speed cars along, has become a dangerous pedestrian flashpoint as thousands of new residents, visitors and office workers flock to the revitalized urban district and attempt to walk around.

The cops, who stood in the open in full uniform, could easily have handed out lots more tickets. Even the obvious police presence did not deter some violators. For every motorist stopped, two or three others blithely blasted by crossing pedestrians who were forced to cower, retreat or break into a jog to avoid getting hit.

The motorist obliviousness on display surprised even the seen-it-all cops: Two drivers were ticketed for turning left just a foot or two in front of Officer Horace Jones, who, decked out in shiny motorcycle boots and uniform, was crossing the intersection on foot after assisting a cyclist knocked down when a cab driver opened the car door in his path.

“I could stand here waving a flag announcing that we’re enforcing this and people still wouldn’t care,’’ said the squad’s supervisor, Sgt. Rufus Devane.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the ticketed motorists claimed not to know they must yield to people on foot. Devane laid out the law: Except when facing a red traffic light, pedestrians crossing an intersection have the right of way, even in the absence of a marked crosswalk. Motorists must stop and wait until pedestrians have safely crossed before proceeding through.

If they don’t, and there happens to be an alert cop on the scene, they risk a $179 moving violation and three points on their record.

“It’s really good to see them here,’’ said Brickell office worker Giseli Rocha, pausing to thank the officers as she walked to work. “It’s crazy here. The drivers don’t respect you. They don’t stop. It’s like you’re not in the U.S.’’

But you are, in a city with a pedestrian injury rate that studies consistently rank among the three highest in the nation.

Wednesday’s crosswalk detail, the second in two months, was prompted by a pair of videos sent to Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa by Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes Brickell. Sarnoff has been trying, with some success, to get police to target speeders and other motorized scofflaws in the area, where he says pedestrians and cyclists are too often getting struck by cars.

The first video, by Craig Chester, a blogger and advocate at transitmiami.com, shows cars forcing their way through crossing pedestrians at the Eighth Street intersection, to a soundtrack mash-up of Rodney Dangerfield’s “I don’t get no respect’’ refrain and a singing Aretha Franklin asking for some.

The second film shows Brickell Homeowners Association vice president Gail Feldman attempting repeatedly to cross Brickell Avenue at 18th Street, another trouble spot, and nearly getting hit more than once.

The appalled chief asked his traffic enforcement division to crack down. In the first of what Orosa hopes to make a regular event, a detail of motorcycle officers wrote 66 tickets in an hour and a half at lunchtime on April 18 at the same Brickell and Eighth intersection, most for failure to yield to pedestrians. Another pedestrian-rights detail on Flagler Street that same day brought in an equally high number of violations.

Wednesday’s violators drove everything from beat-up vans to Escalades. Some earned multiple citations — not just for failing to yield to pedestrians, but for turning right on red without stopping, for not wearing a seat belt and for having expired registrations. At least two motorists drove off with four tickets each.

Orosa said he would like to do more, but is hamstrung by a shortage of resources and personnel that has reduced the traffic patrol to 16 officers.

Still, transitmiami.com’s Chester, a Brickell resident, applauded the police response.

“These are the steps we need to take to educate motorists and improve public safety and civility on Brickell,’’ he said. “It’s a very productive use of police resources.’’

Like Chester, though, Sarnoff said enforcement is only half the equation.

The other, they argue, is doing something about a wide, multi-lane roadway design that they say encourages speeding by motorists and provides too few traffic lights and marked crosswalks.

Like other critics, they largely blame the state Department of Transportation, which is undertaking a complete resurfacing of Brickell but has consistently declined requests from residents, activists and city officials to narrow traffic lanes, add traffic signals and bike lanes and permanently reduce speed limits on the avenue.

In late 2010, after a grandmother was killed by a taxi while trying to cross Brickell, FDOT agreed to reduce the speed limit to 30 miles an hour for the duration of the road project, but plans to bring it back up to 35 mph once it’s done later this year. Sarnoff said he will meet with Brickell residents and FDOT designers June 15 to persuade them to leave the lower limit in place.

“For far too long, Miami has favored cars over pedestrians. It’s years and years of bad learning, and you can’t undo that overnight,’’ he said.

An FDOT spokeswoman said the agency will improve the Eighth Street-Brickell intersection when it begins the next phase of the street resurfacing in October. The agency will upgrade the crosswalk markings to a decorative, textured material that makes it stand out more clearly, and square off the now-incomplete crosswalk “box,’’ which now lacks a leg connecting the two north corners of Eighth Street across the avenue.

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