by CHRIS ROGERS
Dawn Cowell still thinks about it. She is extra cautious now, even though it wasn’t her fault, even though she couldn’t have done anything, even though it should have never happened to begin with.
Walking is part of Cowell’s daily routine. She takes afterwork strolls in Winona while waiting for her husband’s shift to end. Last fall, she was halfway across the crosswalk at Grand and Sarnia streets, when a driver turning quickly struck her and knocked her violently to the ground — one of 24 pedestrian crashes in Winona between 2014 and this October.
“All I saw was a little bit of the front of the end of the car and felt the bump,” Cowell recalled. The front corner of the car struck her. “If they would have hit me dead on, I would not be here,” she said. When Cowell came to, her face was bleeding, and neighbors were coming to help her. The driver never stopped — one of eight hit-and-run accidents involving pedestrians or bicyclists.
At the newspaper office, Cowell pulled up a post-emergency-room selfie on her phone: stitches where her forehead split open, two black eyes and matching bruises across her face.
“I shouldn’t have had to worry that day I got hit,” Cowell said. She was doing everything right: checking for traffic before entering the intersection. Cowell said she was over halfway across the crosswalk — where pedestrians have the right of way — when she was hit. “It was frustrating because it shouldn’t have happened,” she added. “And then I ended up with two ambulance rides, and those aren’t cheap.” Cowell was rushed to Winona Health, then to Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse, Wis.
Cowell is not alone. Forty-seven pedestrians and cyclists were injured in crashes in Winona since 2014, many seriously. Two people were killed. Out of 19 pedestrian accidents reported to the Winona Police Department (WPD) between 2014-2018, pedestrians were struck while in the crosswalk in 14 of them. Forty-four percent of accidents occurred when drivers were making a turn.
For drivers focused on traffic while making a turn, checking for pedestrians can be an afterthought. “That is something that they mentioned specifically: making sure that you look to your right for pedestrians stepping into the crosswalk,” Winona Mayor Mark Peterson said, describing a defensive-driving course he took.
“When you’re making that turn, there’s a lot more involved in the process,” Winona Police Chief Paul Bostrack said. “You’re looking at traffic in probably three directions … and it’s probably easy to forget to look to the sidewalk. I think everyone has probably had this close call that makes you say, ‘Wow!’ And it only takes one time if you forget to look.”
“[The driver] repeatedly said she didn’t see [the victim] until after she struck him and would never intentionally hit anyone,” a WPD officer summarized the statement a driver gave after turning left at a four-way stop sign and hitting and injuring a pedestrian in the crosswalk. “Driver did not see pedestrian and struck her,” another officer wrote, summarizing what a driver said after turning right at a red light and hitting a young woman in a crosswalk with a “walk” signal. “He stated he was driving into the sun when a figure suddenly appeared in front of him in the middle of the road,” another driver told officers. “[The driver] stated he never saw [the victim] in the crosswalk. He was very apologetic and felt bad,” another police report reads, describing a crash between a driver turning left and a pedestrian in the crosswalk. “She never saw [the victim] or his friend,” another driver told police.
Even when drivers appeared to be at-fault — based on subjects’ and witnesses’ statements — it was rare for for drivers to be cited. Of the 14 cases where motorists hit pedestrians in a crosswalk between 2014-2018, only three drivers received citations.
“A lot of it comes down to officer discretion,” Bostrack said when asked why citations are rare. “When officers are at the scene there are other factors that weigh in, in just talking to other people and getting a sense of how sure they can be about … were they extremely careless or was it just a split-second accident,” he explained. “When you’re actually on the scene talking to individuals, you’re able to see the conditions, weather, lighting, traffic, and all these other things that may have played into whether it was avoidable,” Bostrack stated. “Most of them are purely accidental,” he added. Additionally, it can be difficult to find evidence or witnesses to build a solid case, Bostrack noted. “Sometimes the only witness is the person that got hit, and that’s the last thing on their mind,” he said. On top of that, officers have a lot of things to worry about other than busting a careless driver: providing first aid to victims, directing traffic, and making sure the scene is safe for first responders, Bostrack noted.
In a couple cases, pedestrians appeared to be at-fault. In one accident, witnesses told police a runner jogged right into the crosswalk without stopping or looking, then was hit by a driver, whom witnesses said was not speeding or driving recklessly. The runner was uninjured.
Compared to pedestrians, it was more common for cyclists to enter intersections without stopping. “When bicycles are on the streets or highways they are subject to the same traffic rules as drivers are,” Bostrack noted.
The Winona City Council has taken several steps to try to improve pedestrian safety since 2013 — when serious accidents spurred the city to action. Many focused on Broadway, which had been a hotspot for crashes. The city installed several signs warning drivers to stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk on Broadway, a handful of button-activated flashing signs that pedestrians can use when crossing the street, and a pair of radar speed signs. New stop signs have been installed throughout the city, and several “curb bumpouts” have been built, meant to slow traffic and make pedestrians more visible. There has been lots of discussion at city hall on improving pedestrian and bicycle safety, and in 2014, the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce launched a public awareness campaign targeting both drivers and walkers.
“Just from a driver’s standpoint, there’s been a lot of changes in Winona even in the last few years,” said Winona Planning Commission member Ed Hahn, who was one of numerous volunteers who marched across crosswalks with banners that read “Stop for pedestrians” during the chamber’s campaign.
Those efforts appear to have had some effect. The number of pedestrian accidents fell significantly from 2014 to 2017, before climbing again last year and this year. At the lowest point, there were just two pedestrian crashes in 2017, down from a high of seven in 2013. The marked — though not permanent — decline in pedestrian accidents in Winona came at the same time that the number of pedestrian crashes statewide was on the rise. Across Minnesota, pedestrian accidents were increasing in the 2010s and in 2015, the rate of pedestrian fatalities shot up 150 percent, according to a Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) report. MDH experts pointed to an increase in distracted driving and distracted walking as potential culprits, as well as higher rates of both driving and walking generally.
Taken as a whole, the average rate of pedestrian crashes in Winona over 2014-2018 — 3.8 accidents per year — is nearly half the rate for the prior decade, 2004-2013, when there were 6.4 accidents per year.
Notably, the number of accidents on Broadway fell from nine crashes in five years from 2009-2013 to just four crashes in five years from 2014-2018.
“One accident is one too many,” Peterson said. However, he stated that it seemed the city’s efforts made some difference. “One of the responsibilities of the council is to make sure that our community is a safe community, and I don’t think there’s ever been a vote against anything that improves safety,” he added.
City Council member Paul Schollmeier offered another potential explanation for the drop in accidents: Winona State University’s enrollment decline — it has lost hundreds of students over several years — could have reduced the total number of pedestrians in Winona.
The city’s initiatives may have had some positive effect, but that does not mean the mission is accomplished, Schollmeier added.
Schollmeier and City Council member Pam Eyden want the city to continue making pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements. Eyden, who has been meeting regularly with a student pedestrian-safety committee at WSU, said the group wants better lighting on Huff Street. The state needs to repaint crosswalks on Main Street/Highway 43, she added.
“There’s still a lot of issues, in my opinion, on Gilmore to Pelzer and Highway 61,” Schollmeier said. He also highlighted the lack of crosswalks and sidewalks on Frontenac Drive. “There really is no place to walk,” he stated.
In city studies, local walkers and cyclists said they don’t always feel safe walking or biking in the Mankato Avenue business district or at Highway 61 crossings throughout Winona. The Mankato Avenue business district was a hotspot for bicycle accidents, with six crashes at Mankato Avenue and Frontenac Drive or at Mankato Avenue and Riverbend Road since 2014.
Bostrack advised drivers and pedestrians alike to avoid distracted driving and walking. Bostrack encouraged pedestrians to be defensive and not assume drivers will stop for them. “If you’re going to be on a bicycle,” he said, “as corny as it sounds to some people, wear the helmet.” Wear lights and reflectors, too, Bostrack added.
“Part of that burden of making that a safer place lies with all of us because we’re all out on the roads; we’re all out on the sidewalks,” Hahn said. “Winonans have to carry that responsibility of just being more aware of their behavior on the roads,” he added.
Cowell still has close calls on a regular basis: drivers who stop at the very last minute or whizz by her in the crosswalk. “Some people just don’t care,” she said. “I hold up my hands and tell people, ‘Stop!’” It can be scary, but more than anything it makes her angry. “How can I get it so they understand what they’re doing?” she asked.