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Battle Flag of the Pedestrians

Orange Banner Is the Latest Weapon in the Conflict Between Walker and Driver

By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page C01

It's evening rush hour, invitingly warm, sky still bright, and Vee Burke is about to walk into battle against the angry, selfish, reckless, honking hordes.

They are armed with V8 engines and fat tires, encased in two tons of steel.

Making their way across Connecticut Avenue, pedestrians use a bright orange flag to alert motorists. (Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

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Her weapon is a fluorescent orange flag.

Burke has lived in this privileged parcel of urban America called Chevy Chase for 58 years, and she ought to be able to cross her own street. Maybe she wants to buy stamps at the post office, or get some paint chips at the hardware store, or pick over the produce gleaming on the sidewalk outside Magruder's.

But this street is a major congested Washington artery -- Connecticut Avenue, six lanes wide, cars and trucks and buses pouring south from Chevy Chase Circle and hurtling north toward Montgomery County and the Beltway.

The speed limit is 25 mph, but that's a joke. The pedestrian crosswalk at Northampton Street, where Burke stands, is painted white, but that's ignored. There is no traffic light, just these vertical racks of cheap orange flags on both sides of the road, and a new District law that requires motorists to stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk.

Burke, who gives her age as "over 80," peers at the traffic, grabs a flag from the rack and holds it directly in front of her. She takes a tentative step off the curb, jiggles the flag. Cars whiz by, heedless. She thrusts the flag. One driver, in the lane closest to her, stops. One by one, drivers in lanes 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 brake.

Burke strides briskly across the avenue, puts the flag in its holder and explains her technique: "I look like I mean business." She looks like one stern crossing guard, without the vest.

Later this year, in its continual effort to mediate the war between walker and driver, Washington will finish outfitting every single signaled intersection -- more than 1,000 of them -- with the super-sophisticated, light-emitting-diode pedestrian countdown displays, the very latest in gee-whiz traffic engineering. At the same time, the city will decide whether to take the distinctly low-tech orange flags program being piloted at two Chevy Chase crosswalks -- at Northampton, and two blocks away at Connecticut and Morrison -- and offer it to other neighborhoods.

The orange-flag idea was born in 1996 in Kirkland, Wash., a Seattle suburb, after a boy who was a crossing guard at his elementary school was hit by a car. From Kirkland, the program has spread to municipalities in at least 13 states. Flags wave in Portland, Maine, St. Paul, Minn., Madison, Wis., Cambridge, Mass., and Salt Lake City.

The flags arrived in Chevy Chase after intensive lobbying by Samantha Nolan, a whirling dervish of a community activist. "We were having people shopping at the Safeway," she says, "and they would walk across Connecticut and cars would knock the groceries right out of their hands." Eggs were not the only things broken. Some residents urged a traffic light be put in at Morrison Street, at the Safeway, but Nolan argued successfully that the flags were cheaper, successful and would not change the residential character of Morrison Street.

"Let's be honest," says Dan Tangherlini, director of the District's Department of Transportation. "It's a little odd. Grabbing this orange flag? You are going to march across the street with this orange flag?"

But the early studies of the flag project indicate that when pedestrians did hoist the flag and march across Connecticut Avenue, motorists were twice as likely to stop for them. "To some extent by grabbing the flag you are motivating the pedestrian to be more aware of the danger and the situation," he says, "and, because it is kind of curious, the driver might slow down just out of the pure what-the-heck-is-that value."

The flags let pedestrians assert their rights. This is fine, as long as walkers remember that might is not on their side.

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