Remembering Margaret MacDonald

Margaret MacDonald left the Senior Center on Maple Street sometime after 4 PM on Wednesday afternoon, November 20, 1996.

MacDonald, who was 77 and had moved to Arlington in 1981, volunteered as a receptionist for the Council on Aging. She also volunteered at Fidelity House as an assistant ceramics teacher.

Wyman St. crosswalk, looking north, just before sunset.

MacDonald boarded an inbound bus on Mass. Ave. at around 4:25 and disembarked at the Wyman St. bus stop in East Arlington at perhaps 4:40.

It was dusk, about 20 minutes after sunset. I took the accompanying photos at the same time of day. The sky was blue, pink by Spy Pond and behind Walgreens.

MacDonald was crossing Mass. Ave. in the marked pedestrian walkway there when she was struck by a car driven by a Cambridge man.

The Arlington Advocate reports that police arrived at the scene at 4:44. MacDonald was transported to Mass. General Hospital, where she died six days later. She never regained consciousness. Today is the anniversary of her death.

The inbound 77 Bus approaches Wyman Terrace.

I did not know Margaret MacDonald, but we all know women like her. They are our neighbors, aunts, sisters. A co-worker a the Council on Aging described MacDonald as someone who “would do things for people without thinking.”

In the remaining six weeks of 1996, Mass. Ave. would see two additional crashes that sent pedestrians to the hospital. One of those, also in East Arlington, also involved an older woman and was also fatal. These events gripped the town and led to attempts to redesign the street for more safety.

The Arlington Advocate, in its December 5 (1996) story about MacDonald’s death, paraphrases Joan Pippin, then the senior coordinator for the Arlington Senior Association, as saying drivers who speed on Mass. Ave. “escape punishment.”

The danger of fast drivers is particularly relevant to Arlington because it has a large senior population. The seniors have to cross Massachusetts Avenue, which is a wide street, Pippin said.

“Cars drive too fast,” Pippin said. “If they slowed down they would give us a chance.”

It is rarely possible to say with perfect certainty what role street design plays in any particular injury or death by crash. On the other hand, the relationship between how roads are designed and how safe they are generally is incontrovertible.

The width of Mass. Ave encourages speeding—it just feels fast—and speed kills. Multi-lane streets are dangerous in ways that single lanes are not. Perversely, in high-volume multi-lane roads like Mass. Ave., pedestrian crossings such as the one at Wyman St. have a greater accident rate than jaywalking.

For those of us who know the history, there was this small satisfaction in the new design for Mass. Ave.: The Wyman St. crosswalk was to be the single most improved pedestrian crossing of the entire project.

The plan was to go from the multi-lane crossing that exists today to a single-lane crossing each way, with neckdowns (bump-outs) and a full-blown raised pedestrian island.

It was thus especially disappointing when so many of those features were edited out of the plan early this year. The latest design is better than the current reality, but still falls short. It’s unfortunate that the Town could not find a better, safer solution for this crossing.

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9 comments so far

  1. dr2chase on

    Have you noticed the bins of little orange flags at one of the Lowell St. crosswalks near the reservoir? I know, not Mass Ave, not this blog.

    My thoughts about crosswalks are generally pretty intemperate; drivers really do need to understand that the law gives them no slack whatsoever, and it does NOT require that pedestrians wear gaudy clothing, nor does it require that pedestrians “look first”. It just says they have the right of way, full stop.

    • Adam Auster on

      Of course you are right about the law, but I really believe most drivers want to drive better than they do, and it’s not so much a question of enforcement as design.

      People do fail to yield to pedestrians, but I think the cognitive narrative is more likely to be, Gosh, sorry, I didn’t see you than, Out of my way, peasant!

      True, it is the driver’s job to drive slowly and carefully enough to see pedestrians, but I think that bad road design contributes more than anything else to speeding and invisibility and where drivers’ mental focus is and isn’t directed.

      Good design, in other words, facilitates good driving.

      • dr2chase on

        The cognitive narrative is (so I read) a lot more along the lines of “I am competent, other people make mistakes” — so when there is a mistake, people try to find ways to attribute it to the other person (this even has a name, the “Fundamental Attribution Error”). Good infrastructure helps by making mistakes less likely, so there is less need to invent reasons why the mistakes was the fault of the other guy.

        In other settings: “I earned my government benefits, those guys are moochers”.

      • Mark Kaepplein on

        People will always make mistakes and take risks. The safer they perceive they are, the more risks they take. For example, lower traffic speeds result in more jaywalking and risk taking by pedestrians and cyclists. Bike lanes don’t reduce accidents but cyclists feel safer. Only so much can be done. Traffic deaths are much lower now that other accident types dwarf them making expensive road changes a poor use of money for marginal benefit. Money is better used on other types of safety.

        US road design has been bad for making roads more homogeneous and boring to reduce cognitive demands, causing too many temptations to multitask and get distracted, or zone out. There is a delicate balance that some chaos increases safety.

    • Mark Kaepplein on

      The flags are another visibility aid, thus good and so much cheaper than road changes, possible even more effective than many.

      Motorists and cyclists aren’t out to mow people down with rare exceptions. Its often “I didn’t see you” when a driver hits someone, though pedestrians also suddenly enter the path of moving bicycles or motor vehicles too. I didn’t see the motorcyclist is the most common statement in those accidents. People aren’t wondering if they can avoid legal penalties prior to accidents.

      The other night on the NBC evening news was a story on bike accidents and cyclists riding with video cameras recording, much like some police do. More than anything, examples showed road rage, with a cyclist demonstrating it against a pickup truck, unsuccessfully. The road appeared to have three lanes going each way with the cyclist riding in the right third of the middle lane instead of the right lane. The pickup driver was driving in the middle lane and was trying to pass the cyclist. The cyclist didn’t want to keep right and use the right lane, instead choosing to briefly hold his position prior to contact with the truck. The video must have been shot by another rider who did keep right (the law in Mass for slower vehicles).

      I saw a similar defiant act by a pedestrian by town hall, not yielding to a fully loaded dump truck at the crosswalk. She was lucky the truck was in full working order. Many vehicles including bicycles do not have brakes in perfect working order, another bad assumption to go with thinking they are visible and others will react in time.

  2. Mark Kaepplein on

    Adam,
    Your current photos do not represent conditions 16 years ago. Arlington made two important safety improvements following the accidents, visible in your photos. The first is the much wider, bolder, brighter, and more long-lasting, “continental” (wide bars) crosswalk painting with highly reflective thermoplastic tape instead of conventional white pavement paint. The second important improvement was brighter streetlight illumination at crosswalks. The town has also mostly has bollards (big traffic cones with signs) to alert drivers and cyclists to crosswalks. The combined effect has worked. Sadly, these safety measures are not more universally used on other major roads in Mass. Photos of pedestrian fatality locations in the media usually shows the similarly poor crosswalk markings used in Arlington 16 years ago, or worse.

    I too am disappointed that there are only two raised median island areas in the latest plans. Its because our project is a $6M road resurfacing one, not a road reconstruction project. Consequently, raised islands where a traffic signal are not added are labeled “non-participating”, meaning the town would have to pay for the new addition. Instead we get curb extensions, which don’t show accident reduction, but are covered by grants. The mid-block island in the plan is smart because it is the most valuable one, aiding jaywalkers in the heaviest pedestrian area, making such crossings safer and easier (than even unsignaled crosswalks).

    I am disappointed that there are no crosswalk signals added in the plan, especially at Wyman where there is a group home. I live on the next street and a neighbor is legally blind, where such signals save the blind from having to walk all the way to traffic lights with chirping signals for greatest safety. I hope these safety devices were not excluded just to give the double-jeopardy argument against multiple lanes some traction.

    “Gaudy”, visible clothing saves lives. So do the front and rear lights required for cyclists from dusk to dawn, pulsing headlights for motorcycles, and lights that blink for cyclists, runners, and walkers (pedestrians). Being seen is the number one thing pedestrians and cyclists can do to save their lives on the road. Bright colors are the new trendy for cycling and running wear. High visibility vests cost a mere $6 at Harbor Freight Tools in Wellington Circle – far less than the value of a life and cost of lane removal.

    • dr2chase on

      Mark, you are confusing good ideas with what is legally required. Regular bicycle riding saves lives (true, it’s been measured) but it is not legally required.

      On the road, drivers are required to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks — not gaudy-clothes pedestrians, but ALL pedestrians. That means you are legally required to drive slowly enough approaching a crosswalk that you could successfully notice and stop for a jogging ninja — any faster is too fast for conditions. Traffic law usually goes unenforced, but that’s a plain conclusion from what’s written.

      • Mark Kaepplein on

        My focus was on what saves lives, and only casually mentioned lights on bikes are legally required because many cyclists don’t know or don’t care. I didn’t mention reflectors on bikes, which are also legally required because I notice them missing less often, though they too seem gauche to some and are removed or missing. Police really need to enforce these issues in particular. Otherwise, discussion is on features beyond legal requirements.

        Cyclists and motorists are more likely to hit what they can’t see, be it a person or pothole. “Double jeopardy” crosswalk risk is a visibility problem too, just not clothing related. Ever notice signs on the back of MBTA buses: “If you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you”? People forget how important being seen is, like those not crossing and first peeking around a stopped vehicle before proceeding across the next lane.

        Adam, will there be posting about cyclist deaths in Arlington? The only one I recall was 12 years ago, caused by racing and a tree. The solution was no more bike races here.

        • dr2chase on

          Lots of things save lives. Auto speeds below 20mph dramatically reduce the risk of pedestrian death in a crash, never mind the crashes avoided altogether. Getting people out of cars for short trips is an enormous life-saver, an order of magnitude larger than the savings we would get if we could magically eliminate all auto crashes.


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