Aryonna Watson made the fatal mistake of trying to run across Delsea Drive at Sherman Avenue in Vineland on May 16.
The 8-year-old from Bridgeton died three days later of injuries suffered when she was hit by a car driven by a motorist who could not stop or maneuver in time to miss the little girl at the busy intersection.
Two other pedestrians have died, and another was critically injured, trying to cross Delsea Drive in Vineland since August. Those incidents further bolster a belief by Cumberland County residents that Delsea Drive, formally designated as Route 47 by the state, is one of the more dangerous and deadly state highways in the area.
State Police reports show 127 people died in traffic-related accidents in Cumberland County from 2008 through Monday. Fifteen of those fatalities, or almost 12 percent, occurred along the length of Delsea Drive. Ten of those fatalities occurred in Vineland, where much of Delsea Drive is an over-capacity, two-lane highway that passes through busy commercial areas.
Vineland Mayor Ruben Bermudez and City Engineer Brian Meyers agree that many of the incidents on Delsea Drive are caused not so much by how it is engineered, but by motorists and pedestrians who are either inattentive or just ignore safety regulations. That includes pedestrians who routinely cross Delsea Drive at locations other than designated intersections, some of which are separated by significant distances.
“It does ultimately come down to personal responsibility and being in control of your vehicle,” Meyers said. “If someone has to walk 50 feet to (get to a designated intersection), what’s the likelihood of them walking 50 feet, crossing and walking 50 feet back, or just crossing where they are?”
“People sometimes just don’t understand that they are on a major highway,” Bermudez said. “Precaution has to be with the person driving on the roads.”
Still, Bermudez said, those incidents indicate something is wrong.
“I do have concerns,” Bermudez said. “This is something we should look into with the state. We have to find every means to make sure our citizens are safe.”
The state has taken some action to improve safety for both pedestrians and motorists.
A portion of Delsea Drive that runs for about 10 miles between Route 49 in Millville and an area just north of Arbor Avenue in Vineland was designated by the state in 2004 as a safety corridor. Fines for a variety of motor vehicle offenses in state-designated safety zones are doubled. Officials in both cities say that helped slow traffic, resulting in fewer severe accidents.
But Vineland officials say they are still waiting for other promised safety measures.
For instance, a state Department of Transportation survey of Delsea Drive intersections several years ago recommended a special signal be installed at the high-accident-rate intersection with Forest Grove Road, Meyers said. The signal would flash a warning to Delsea Drive motorists when a vehicle on Forest Grove Road was approaching the intersection, he said. The signal, possibly the first of its kind for New Jersey, has yet to be installed, he said.
DOT spokesman Steve Schapiro said whatever improvements are coming to Delsea Drive will not involve major engineering projects.
The department is in the early design stage of improvements to several intersections north and south of the Delsea Drive-Landis Avenue intersection, he said. Those improvements involve things such as additional crosswalks, signs, handicap ramps and signals that show when pedestrians can cross intersections, he said.
Schapiro said there is no exact timetable for completion of that work, saying it is part of a “long, deliberate process.”
Meyers added that, given the state’s financial condition, any future improvements are likely to be as cost-efficient as possible.
“I don’t see the state doing a full redo of Delsea Drive,” Meyers said. “It would be costly.”
Given Delsea Drive’s reputation, Meyers said, he is surprised by its fatality statistics.
“That’s pretty low,” he said, adding the highway’s prominence in the county could make it a magnet for attention. “I think a Delsea Drive accident going into the newspaper raises more eyes than one on a two-lane country road that you never heard of before.”
State Police statistics show the second-largest number of traffic-related fatalities from 2008 through Monday in Cumberland County occurred on county Route 552. Ten people died on that road.
While much of Route 552 is in rural areas, there are some busy portions that run through downtown Bridgeton and past Cumberland County’s only hospital and Cumberland County College.
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