OCEAN CITY — Jennifer Gentile sat on her porch Monday and watched a steady stream of beachgoers haul their beach chairs and coolers across the intersection of 14th Street and Central Avenue.
Gentile remembers the chaos at that same, normally quiet intersection four years ago in the seconds after Casey Feldman was struck by a passing van.
“We heard this horrible crash,” said Gentile, an emergency room nurse from Maple Glen, Pa. “The scene was just devastating.”
Feldman, 21, died later on July 17, 2009 — and multiple private and public efforts to stop distracted driving and increase pedestrian safety began.
On April 1, 2010, the state adopted Casey’s Law, which revised crosswalk traffic regulations: Motorists must now stop, not just yield, to pedestrians in marked crosswalks. The law reads in part: “The driver of a vehicle shall stop and remain stopped to allow a pedestrian to cross the roadway within a marked crosswalk, when the pedestrian is upon, or within one lane of, the half of the roadway, upon which the vehicle is traveling or onto which it is turning.”
On Monday, during a random one-hour stretch, all but one of the cars traveling at the intersection where Feldman was struck did that.
Violations of the regulation can result in two points on a driver’s license record, a $200 fine and court costs, 15 days of community service and insurance surcharges.
Gentile was coming back from the beach with her family and preparing for dinner when Feldman was hit. She rushed into the street where others already had gathered trying to help. An ambulance arrived a minute or two later, she said.
“She was hurt pretty bad,” Gentile recalled. “And the driver was visibly shaken.”
“We were always worried about that corner. It was really a mad dash to try and get across,” she said.
Gentile, a mother of four, said the installation of lights and crosswalk signals have made the intersection safer.
Still, the more than 300 distracted-driving warnings issued around town so far this year demonstrate the problem remains.
“It’s still a big problem. Has it gotten better? We’re not there yet,” said Ocean City Police Sgt. Brian Hopely, of the department’s traffic safety unit.
According to the New Jersey State Police, 72 pedestrians have died this year on the state’s roads, up slightly from the 71 in 2012 and 69 in 2011 for the same time period.
But overall the number of motor vehicle fatalities in the state is down from previous years, with 263 fatalities across the state this year compared to 307 and 322 in 2012 and 2011, respectively.
Feldman died after a van driven by Anthony Lomonaco, then 58, of Cape May Court House, hit her. He was charged with careless driving and eventually pleaded guilty.
Lomonaco, who stopped at the crosswalk but said he did not see Feldman, paid $233 in fines and fees after a municipal court hearing in March 2010.
Hopely said the city has initiated distracted driving enforcement programs designed to get drivers to keep their focus on the road. The program this year runs April 1 through Labor Day.
Hopely said officers stop drivers who are texting or talking on cellphones and issue warnings. Those who watch a 10-minute video and pass a quiz on road safety at www.hangup-justdrive.com avoid a summons.
Since April, the department has issued more than 300 warnings.
“If it’s not hands-free, it’s against the law,” he said.
The city’s police also conduct random decoy programs, sending officers in plainclothes into intersections to see if drivers stop.
But Hopely noted that pedestrians share the responsibility. The law states: “Where traffic is not controlled and directed either by a police officer or a traffic control signal, pedestrians shall cross the roadway within a crosswalk or, in the absence of a crosswalk, and where not otherwise prohibited, at right angles to the roadway.”
“It’s much easier now. A lot more people are aware of stopping, for the most part,” said Josh Ervine, an Ocean City native who lives in Somerdale.
Ervine and his 6-year-old son, Reid, crossed Central Avenue on Monday with beach chair in tow. He said he recalled several occasions when he was hit, none too seriously, while riding his bicycle around town.
“We had this saying. Everybody seems to be in such a hurry on vacation, but the lights have been a big help,” he said, noting the intersection where Feldman was hit now has traffic lights and a crosswalk countdown informing pedestrians when its time to cross.
“Even if there’s no traffic visible, you’re supposed to wait for the signal to change,” he said.
Hopely said it is unlawful for pedestrians to cross in the middle of a street unless a crosswalk is present.
“Common sense should prevail here,” he said.
Joel Feldman, Casey’s father, has taken on the cause. The family formed the Casey Feldman Foundation, and he and others travel across the country talking to young people in particular about the dangers of not only distracted driving but distracted walking.
Public service announcements were produced to tell the family’s story.
“Our message is distracted driving is really a lot more than using your cellphone or texting,” Feldman said, explaining that eating, putting on makeup and other activities can all distract a driver.
It is a message he hopes to deliver to young and old.
“Moms and dads are texting. They’re eating, putting on makeup. They’re checking their e-mail (while driving),” he said.
Feldman said the family continues its work for many reasons, including a need to ensure the young woman’s life had meaning.
“Casey died when she was 21. She didn’t finish college. She didn’t find a career. She didn’t marry. She didn’t have children,” he said.
Casey would be 25 if she were alive today.
“I know just the way drunk driving is not socially acceptable now, distracted driving will not be socially acceptable five or 10 years from now,” he said.
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