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'On High Alert': Car accidents continue to injure and kill. What can Buffalo do?

The sun was setting as Earl McColgin, and his dog Toby, wrapped up one of their daily walks. The duo walked miles together every day in the Elmwood Village, wearing flashing vests to increase their visibility.

McColgin also uses a white cane, indicating that he is blind. Walking is how McColgin gets almost anywhere he needs to go and it’s important for managing his Parkinson’s disease.

"Even if the intersection was marked with stop signs or a signal, we would still wait, because you never know if cars were gonna stop."

McColgin was hit by a car in March when they crossed at West Utica and Norwood – where the crosswalk is wearing away, but a stop sign is visible.

Walking down Norwood Ave

VIDEO: WBFO Reporter Emyle Watkins films a video walking south on Norwood Ave, to the intersection of West Utica. This was taken in the middle of the day on a Friday in May. Several cars are seen not coming to a full stop.

It should have been safe to cross.

A white dog with brown spots looks up at the camera. He's standing near a door and wearing a bright yellow and white reflective vest over a orange jacket, with a blue and orange leash attached.
Courtesy Earl McCoglin
Toby, Earl McCoglin's dog, is pictured in an undated photo wearing a bright, reflective, flashing vest.

"And then I was thrown into the intersection. And that's when my, my head hit the pavement, at that point, I lost all consciousness."

This accident was not an anomaly.

According to data collected by GoBike, in Erie and Niagara counties, between 2017 and 2021, there were over 1,500 accidents that ended with a pedestrian being injured.

"I don't recall the ambulance or the emergency room or them putting the staples in my head. I did come to up in the room."

Toby, a white dog with brown spots, sleeps.
Courtesy Earl McCoglin
Toby, Earl McCoglin's dog, is sleeping in an undated photo.

When McColgin’s son came to the hospital, he learned his companion Toby died in the accident.

"My doctors were surprised. And yeah, it was very bad. And I could have I guess, I could have very likely been with Toby."

McColgin is still recovering from his physical injuries. The psychological and emotional ones will take a lot longer.

"I get very scared outside. I try to only walk around the block so I don't have to cross any streets"

GoBike's data, which came from the New York State Department of Transportation, showed there were a total of 121,807 motor vehicle accidents in both counties over the 5-year period. That's an average of 67 accidents a day.

McColgin lives inthe Niagara District, the same area where just a few months before, in November 2021, Marcell Yanders was also hit by a car. Marcell was about to turn 13 when he died. After the accident, members of Marcell’s community painted new crosswalks.

McColgin’s community also mobilized after his accident.

"I absolutely do think the city could have done something sooner. I mean, our crosswalks should have been painted and they should be maintained regularly," said Linda Gellman, McColgin's neighbor who organized a community meeting.

"The community is in high alert, we realize something needs to be done. We're citizens that don't sit and wait for things to happen. We make them happen," she added.

The momentum for change has tapered off in the weeks after his accident.

McColgin admits hope is hard to find.

"My best friend is taken. And not only was he my best friend, but he also gave me a reason to keep moving and to keep doing things and that's been taken away from me not by a quote-unquote, usual death but a senseless one," McColgin said.

PART 2: How do we reduce accidents?

"Crossing the street should not be or even feel like a death-defying act. And right now it does," Gellman said.

When Gellman held a community meeting after McColgin's accident – over 110 people came, by her count.

“I said how many people here have seen someone run the stop sign and the hands shot up," Gellman said.

Dozens of people are pictured sitting in a large community room facing the front, where a few people sit at a table and stand at a podium.
Courtesy Linda Gellman
Linda Gellman organized this community meeting shortly after Earl McColgin was hit by a car in mid-March 2022.

But citizens only have so much control. McCoglin himself is an example.

Erin Kavanaugh, who is a Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist at Visually Impaired Advancement or VIA, works one on one with people with low vision, “teach people how to go for walks with the greatest amount of comfort and safety as possible.”

“One of the tenants of the instruction that I provide is when you can't see, be seen," Kavanaugh said.

Kavanaugh has worked with McCoglin over the years and believes he did everything he could to be visible the day he was hit.

Earl McCoglin, an older white man, is wearing a black mask below his chin, eyeglasses, a light purple striped polo shirt, and jeans. He is clutching a white cane as he talks with a reporter, who is holding a microphone in front of him. The reporter is wearing a blue shirt and brown pants. There's a camera behind the reporter and they are standing outside of a white brick building with a window.
Courtesy Linda Gellman
The press interviewed Earl McCoglin outside of the community meeting Linda Gellman organized in March 2022.

"When I talked with him about it, and he relayed what he did, and in the times that I've worked with Earl, he, he always demonstrated caution," Kavanaugh said, adding that her office is near where McColgin often walks. "Even in the times when I wasn't working with him on occasion, I'd see him walking in the neighborhood. And always walking with caution… purpose, and caution."

And McCoglin is like a lot of Kavanaugh’s clients.

“There's definitely preparation involved in going out for a walk. Nobody takes that for granted with low vision," Kavanaugh said.

So the problem isn’t a pedestrian’s lack of caution.

"The majority of the environments across North America, the focus on movement of people in the community is on cars and vehicles," Kavanaugh said.

To change that focus, to control traffic, prevent accidents, and force vehicle operators to pay attention to pedestrians, is street calming – infrastructure changes like roundabouts and speed bumps.

Kavanaugh puts it this way: "anything that makes a car feel like it has to go slower. So when you're driving and I'm driving, any wider lanes make me feel more comfortable driving quicker. So make the lanes smaller.”

That’s one example. Picture how differently you drive on Allen Street versus Main Street.

“You can raise intersections, right, so you have to slow down to go up it," Kavanaugh said.

You can also extend the curb cuts where people wait – that’s called a bump-out or bulb-out, like the new intersection at Delaware and Chippewa. More commonly, most drivers have probably gone over a speed bump. But street calming can be as simple as painting more lines on the road to slim the road, make a visual bump-out, or adding more crosswalks, like on Niagara Street.

“We want drivers to be more attentive. And ultimately, anything that encourages a driver to turn off in any way and not pay attention is going to work against a pedestrian," Kavanaugh said.

The City of Buffalo knows there’s a need for street calming. There’s no denying the car culture.

"I think the legacy of Western New York, of the transportation infrastructure that's been here and that's evolved over the past 50 years is very much car-oriented," City of Buffalo Public Works Commissioner Michael Finn said. "There is definitely a desire to move towards a more pedestrian bicycle, a complete street model that really balances all of the needs."

Finn says Buffalo’s Slow Streets program has been in the works since 2017.

"That's the direction that Public Works is moving in. But with that, though, and really with any change that happens in any kind of environment, the car mentality that's been here for the past 50 years, still comes up," Finn said.

Earl McCoglin can’t get Toby back. But he hopes that after accidents like his, there will be more community awareness and actual changes.

“I'm just thinking, if something positive, can come of this, I won't feel as much as though Toby died in vain," McColgin said.

PART 3: What is being done in Buffalo?

Gellman started contacting the city in April 2021 on behalf of McCoglin, to have “yield to the blind” signs installed in their neighborhood. She continued to email the Department of Public Works for ten months.

"We got everything that we needed for the city, the note from his doctor, and we wrote letters," Gellman said.

McCoglin slipped on un-shoveled snow and ice and fell into West Utica while walking down Ashland Avenue in late January 2022 while on a walk with Toby.

Several drivers neglected to help him as he lay partially in the street.

"Would it take me or for someone else, you know, to actually be injured or killed? For them to finally do something? I don't know," McColgin told WBFO in February.

This was a month and a half before McCoglin was injured, and Toby was killed, when they were hit by a car just a block away at West Utica and Norwood. In the time between the two incidents, the signs were installed, at one of the two intersections they requested, after Gellman emailed the city again.

"You know, Earl told me 'Oh, do you see the signs? I was like, No, I didn't see the signs.' I even drove by them a few times didn't see it. They're up quite high," Gellman said.

A white and black sign reads "STATE LAW YIELD TO THE BLIND"
Emyle Watkins
One of the two signs installed on Summer Street near the start of Ashland Avenue, which is a one-way street with north-bound traffic.

While the effectiveness of these signs have been questioned by transportation, mobility and orientation experts, there are many street calming that features that are proven to reduce car accidents.

“It seems like there's a lot of aggressive driving," said Kelly Gregg, an associate professor in the University at Buffalo’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning. She studies road design and pedestrian environments.

"And as far as infrastructure, it seems like there's a lack of road maintenance," Gregg said. "The line painting isn't maintained."

"So sometimes I joke that you have to imagine where the lines might be in the lanes," Gregg added.

"We have been prioritizing areas around schools," said Finn. He says they’ve asked for $300,000 in the city budget for road striping. "As we get our our schools in good shape, then we'll be moving to other parts of the cities that aren't necessarily around schools, but also have a high pedestrian volume."

Paint sounds simple, but it can be the first step.

“All the work that we do is with paint, it's done as a way for us to be able to pull data and have that as justification to bring back to the city to hopefully make it a more permanent solution," said Cindy Wood, a complete streets planner at GoBike. GoBike currently working on a project to test street-sliming features with paint on Forest Avenue, in collaboration with the city

"So if you think of Niagara Street, and how that has that curved barrier, where it separates the the cycle track from the vehicular traffic, essentially, think about that on Forest, except just with paint and bollards," Wood said.

And this can be cost effective too – Wood says physically altering an intersection, things like adding bump-outs, could cost upwards of $100,000, whereas painting the features in can cost about $5,000 to $10,0000.

The city is working to install more permanent features – primarily speed bumps through the Slow Streets program.

"We started looking into this program going back into 2017 and have evolved it into constructing permanent speed humps in close to 50 neighborhoods," said Finn.

Finn says two big challenges to installing street calming features is the availability of funding, and public opinion.

"As popular as speed humps, bump outs, and other traffic calming measures are. There is also a segment of our community who is very vehicle oriented. And in some ways, without the education and the public outreach that we've been doing, initially views traffic calming as making my commute longer," said Finn

WBFO's Disabilities Reporter Emyle Watkins also questioned Finn on if the city has any disability organizations or advocates working with them or providing feedback on their street calming plans.

"The one kind of umbrella organization that I believe has some at least communication with the with the disabled community is the city's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board. That's a board that's appointed from residents all across the city. That's the one I can say we work directly with," said Finn.

As long as high amounts of accidents continue, some people never come home to their families after a walk or bike ride. A quarter of fatal car accidents in Erie and Niagara Counties between 2017 and 2021 involved a person biking or walking being hit.

Earl McColgin narrowly survived, but will live with the consequences of an accident he did everything in his power to avoid.

"I'm thinking, this is so senseless, I shouldn't have to be in this pain. Toby shouldn't be dead," said McColgin.

Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.