Who's to Blame in Accident, Driver, Victim or Traffic Signal?

February 28, 2019

Last week, The Planet reported that the family of a Wildwood pedestrian killed last year by a Dade County school bus at the main Trenton intersection of highways 136 and 11 was suing the school system for wrongful death. The Georgia Specialized Collision Reconstruction team of the Georgia State Patrol (GSP) had completed its investigation of the accident and has now furnished its resulting report, compiled by GSP's Cpl. Scottie Smith, as a public record. That report indicates another possible target for blame in the tragedy: modern new traffic signals designed to improve traffic flow--but not necessarily to protect pedestrians.


But first, to recap: The accident happened on Feb. 20, 2018, when Linda Diane Hulgan, 71, of Wildwood, was crossing the intersection south to north, from the Guthrie's/Dollar Tree side to the CVS Pharmacy side. She was struck by a Dade school bus driven by Angela Payne, at that point empty of students. Ms. Hulgan died two days later at Erlanger of her injuries.


The lawsuit, filed by Ms. Hulgan's brother, Roger Hulgan, of Cumberland County, Tenn., of course blames the bus driver and the school system for the accident. Lawyers for the school system in their answer to Hulgan's complaint argue that the victim was herself "contributorily negligent" in the accident that killed her. The GSP report contains testimony that would seem to support that argument, but adds evidence for a tertiary "contribution of negligence" by the traffic signal.


There appears to be no doubt that Ms. Hulgan (right, in her obituary picture) was walking within the pedestrian crosswalk when the bus hit her. Witnesses saw her there and saw what happened at the impact: She was flung into the air and came down some distance away, striking her head on the curb as she fell. The report says she died on Feb. 22, 2018, of "multiple blunt force injuries," particularly to the brain. 


Cpl. Smith interviewed Trenton Police Chief Christy Smith, who told him Ms. Hulgan had a history of walking around within the city of Trenton. "On several occasions her officers have encountered Ms. Hulgan walking out into traffic," said the report. "Chief Smith advised Cpl. Smith that her department had also received calls about Ms. Hulgan from motorists concerned about her safety over the past several months."


A witness who saw the actual impact told Cpl. Smith that Ms. Hulgan had been in the pedestrian crosswalk but that he hadn't noticed if she had pressed the button on the traffic signal pole that pedestrians are supposed to push to get the "walking person" signal. He also said she was looking down and not watching traffic.


Another witness said Ms. Hulgan definitely hadn't pressed the button and had not stopped before she stepped into the road. He added to the account that she was wearing light blue clothing, the same color as one of the vehicles waiting at the intersection, so that she might have blended into the landscape and been hard to see.


The accident report also pointed out that from her driver's license information, Ms. Hulgan was extremely short--four feet, 11 inches--another factor which might have made her difficult to see. 


The bus driver says she in fact never did see Ms. Hulgan before the accident. Turning left onto 136 from 11 on a flashing orange arrow, she had seen nothing and only knew there had been an accident when she heard a noise at impact, at which point she stopped immediately.


And a third witness painted a picture of Ms. Hulgan as an accident waiting to happen. This witness had not seen the actual collision but just before that had seen Ms. Hulgan crossing the other side of the intersection, going east to west across Highway 11. She attested: "When the pedestrian stepped into the roadway she did not look at traffic at all." The witness said the traffic signal was green for northbound 1 traffic and that "all of the motorists traveling northbound had to stop and let the pedestrian cross." The witness also said "the pedestrian looked straight ahead, was walking very slowly, was carrying bags, and was not paying attention to the traffic on the roadway." The witness had added Ms. Hulgan was walking with a cane.


So the report presents evidence that the pedestrian was not doing much to protect herself from getting hit by car--but then it goes on to add that neither was the traffic signal. It details at some length the way the lights at the intersection work, including the "permissive left" turn signal.


The GSP report does not contain the term "permissive left" but refers to a "flashing orange arrow." The term "permissive left signal" comes from a Georgia Department of Transportation website article consulted by The Planet when the signals were installed. GDOT changed the signals in late 2017 as part of its long-awaited revamp of Trenton's problematic central intersection.


The GSP report specified that the "walking person" signal is activated only when a pedestrian presses the button for it. "The cross-walk signal at this intersection does not automatically activate with the traffic signal sequence in normal operation," says the report. "The cross-walk signal must be activated by the pedestrian, by pressing the cross-walk button."


But what happens to protect the pedestrian from traffic when the "walking person" image comes on? From what the report says: Nothing. Left-turning traffic still gets the flashing orange "permissive left" arrow, just as would happen had the pedestrian button not been pushed. "At no time does the left turn signal for northbound US Highway 11 traffic change to a red arrow during the cross-walk Illuminated display of the 'walking person icon," says the report.


The Planet will continue to report on the civil suit. 

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