Camden's middle school principal is pursuing her quest to improve the safety of crosswalks in downtown Camden that students use when walking, biking or riding a scooter to school.

Camden-Rockport Middle School Principle Jaime Stone has seen for herself how dangerous certain highly-used crosswalks can be during bike and walk to school events held every year, which highlight pedestrian safety and benefits of starting each day with physical activity.

Even during these events, Stone has witnessed dangerous situations where drivers do not see students and teachers in crosswalks until the last minute.

She is advocating for crosswalks with flashing lights activated when someone walks through them, on two of the most dangerous intersections: Knowlton and Mechanic streets close to the school and Elm and Free streets near the Stop N Go gas station.

The Free Street crosswalk is used by people walking to Coastal Opportunities for Adults with Disabilities. Stone has seen a driver honk, wanting to hurry a person with a disability walking across the street, she said.

There are many students who walk and bike to school, even on some snowy days when school remains open, Stone said.

She regularly hears from parents and others about near-miss situations and speeding in areas with crosswalks, when students are on their way to school or heading home. She hears speeding is a problem on Washington Street, which has two crosswalks near the school at Spring and Trim streets.

She also sees need for improvement with crosswalks obscured by parking spaces in the downtown area, where students typically walk in groups for an afternoon snack or hangout with friends.

Drivers need to be alert that the school's 5th Grade students are small, and cannot be seen over cars or trucks parked in spaces around crosswalks, she said. To add to that, middle school students make mistakes that are normal to their developmental stage, including sometimes walking out into traffic or getting distracted while in a group.

"We owe it to the kids to create a safe environment to walk to school," she said. "There’s a push for outdoor time. I’d hate to think that some people don’t let their children walk to school because it’s not safe."

The Maine Department of Transportation has also identified pedestrian safety issues in Camden.

In 2020, Stone participated in two Pedestrian Safety Forums held in Camden by the Maine Department of Transportation and Bicycle Coalition of Maine, along with concerned citizens and town officials. At the December 2020 forum, a group of about 50 participants identified the areas around all of the town's downtown crosswalks as dangerous for pedestrians.

The forums were the transportation department's response to a spike in pedestrian deaths around the state, most noticeable in 21 communities in Maine, including Camden, Rockland, Orono and the state's larger cities and towns

Camden Public Works Director Dave St. Laurent and Select Board Vice Chairwoman Alison McKellar are also key supporters of improving pedestrian safety in Camden.

St. Laurent's goals are held to a realistic schedule that takes into consideration budgets, workplans and seasonal limitations on regrading sidewalks and painting crosswalk lines.

He is working on a plan to improve the crosswalk at Mechanic and Knowlton, as well as others, but cannot quote specific work that will be done or time frames until plans are approved through town government mechanisms.

In the meantime, $300 dollar neon signs to alert drivers have been placed in the Mechanic St. crosswalk at the Knowlton intersection, and in crosswalks on Washington St. at Trim and Spring. These crosswalks are busy mornings and afternoons with students who can walk, bike or scooter to school from surrounding neighborhoods.

The first sign placed at Mechanic and Knowlton was hit by vehicles, fixed by Public Works employees numerous times, and eventually fell to pieces on the roadway.

St. Laurent and McKellar agree the problem with this crosswalk is in part due to its design, which needs to be fixed.

Instead of a crosswalk that heads straight across Mechanic, this crosswalk is long and angled diagonally from one side of the street to the other. To make matters worse, on one side it lands at the end of a driveway.

McKellar points out that this occurs because there are two parking spaces in front of an office where the crosswalk should end, if it was laid out straight across the street. While the obvious solution is to remove one of the parking spaces and straighten the crosswalk, the diagonal crosswalk has been there as long as anyone can remember.

This crosswalk design, or lack of design, reveals an implied policy in McKellar's view. Simply put, Camden's streets are designed for vehicles and ignore pedestrian safety. This is something she hopes to change.

Speed is also a problem, according to McKellar.

A young person was struck and injured  in the Mechanic Street crosswalk last fall, according to a Police Department report. Stone heard from the family that the accident occurred when school was not in session, and that the young person was struck while heading from Knowlton Street and crossing Mechanic in the crosswalk. The family doctor said it was fortunate it was not worse, she was told.

St. Laurent agrees that a crosswalk should never lead to the end of a driveway, where cars may be parking or backing out. Fixing this one crosswalk involves hiring a contactor to blast off the paint of the current diagonal crosswalk, repainting a new crosswalk in the spring, and grinding out and resurfacing the sidewalk area where a straight crosswalk will end on the southeast side of Mechanic.

Eliminating the parking spot where the new crosswalk needs to land is another issue,  yet be determined. Currently, the parking space is blocked by a sign, to allow for visibility to the existing crosswalk.

Stone has high praise for St. Laurent and the town's public works employees who are working hard to clear snow from the sidewalks on Knowlton Street. Clearing sidewalks is no small effort, but is important it makes it safer for students walking and biking to school.