Tired of dodging cars as she crossed Connecticut Avenue near her Chevy Chase home, Samantha J. Nolan took the problem into her own hands.
Nolan lobbied the city to study pedestrian and motorist practices at two intersections where crosswalks connect busy stretches of shops just south of the Maryland line. And she got results -- in the form of a program called Safe Steps, a street crossing system that provides colorful hand-held flags pedestrians can use to signal drivers to stop for them in crosswalks.
The program debuted last Wednesday at the corners where Connecticut Avenue intersects with Morrison Street and with Northampton Street in Northwest.
"So far, the community reaction has been very positive," said Bill Rice, spokesman for the department. "We want people to obey the law, that's the most important thing. We want the pedestrians to be protected."
Nolan said the intersections have been the sites of several close calls in recent years between motorists and pedestrians.
Safe Steps is "low tech. It's low cost. And it has a high rate of success," she said.
The flags hang from holders on utility poles at the corners of the intersections. Instructions are posted on the poles.
Nolan frequently shows neighbors how to use the flags, teaching them to make eye contact with drivers and to hold the flags so motorists can see them. She advises them to walk to the center of the street and do the same with drivers in the other direction, then place the flags back in their holders.
The flags will remain in place for at least two months while the department determines the effectiveness of the program, Rice said. D.C. police are also monitoring the intersections. Similar programs operate in 13 states.
D.C. Council Member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) has introduced legislation that would require drivers to come to a complete stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk and would levy a fine of $100 for failure to do so.
Now, motorists must yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. Fenty said he expects the council to change the law by the end of the year.
"I think a lot of it is people don't know what it is to yield," Fenty said. "So, I think this will just fix the ambiguity. We want the automobilists to know that they're supposed to give the right of way to pedestrians."
The flags have received mixed reviews in the neighborhood.
Siobhan Abell, 35, who pushed her son in a stroller on a recent morning, said she usually walks to the next block to cross at the traffic light, but since the flag system was installed, she's been using it with much success.
"It's bright orange," Abell said. "They can't miss it."
But others are less positive.
Richard Maggrett, 65, used the flag to cross Connecticut Avenue at Morrison Street after a shopping trip to the CVS Pharmacy, but only at Nolan's urging. After making it three-quarters of the way across the street, he and Nolan were forced to stop by a company van that kept going, even after Nolan waved the flag in the van's direction.
Maggrett said he won't use the flags to cross the street again.
"I wouldn't trust any of these drivers," Maggrett said. "You can see how fast these cars are going in both directions. Those flags aren't going to mean anything to them."
Richard Singer, 46, his daughter Emilie, 10, and her friend Claire Ulak, 10, tried to cross Connecticut Avenue on a recent morning without using the flag. Nolan quickly approached and prodded them to use it.
On their way back, Emilie grabbed a flag to signal drivers as she and her companions crossed the street.
"I think it's kind of silly, but if it makes the streets safer, it's okay," Richard Singer said.