Brendan Smith and Mike Hughes, who have summer homes in Ocean City, wait for cars to pass at 20th Street and West Avenue in Ocean City as they try to cross the street. For pedestrians, West Avenue in Ocean City might as well be the Zambesi River, minus the crocodiles. Anthony Smedile

OCEAN CITY - Still dripping from an ocean dip Saturday, Mike Hughes and Brendan Smith padded along the 20th Street sidewalk until they reached West Avenue.

Here, they faced their biggest obstacle - the island's widest road, and one of its busiest. To get back to their vacation home, the friends from Pennsylvania would have to cross Ocean City's equivalent of the Zambezi River - minus the crocodiles.

They took a few tentative steps into the crosswalk and watched as one and then two cars zipped heedlessly past them. After a few false starts, they made it safely across.

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New Jersey is unequivocal when it comes to pedestrians having the right of way in crosswalks without a traffic signal. But few seem to know or heed the law.

The rules are spelled out in state law and in the Motor Vehicle Commission handbook that drivers must study to pass the state driving test.

Failure to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk can result in a fine of $130 and a two-point offense against your license - the same penalty you would receive for careless driving, running a stop sign or driving the wrong way down a one-way street.

"Not everybody stops every time on different streets. You have to be careful," said Hughes, who lives in Stratford, Pa.

"On West Avenue, people all try to go around you," Smith said. "And you have to watch the knuckleheads behind the people who are trying to help you cross."

Nationwide, pedestrian deaths were down 1.4 percent in 2008 from the previous year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Last year, 4,378 pedestrians were struck and killed by vehicles in America.

But New Jersey has seen an alarming rise in pedestrian deaths this year. The state usually sees about 150 pedestrian deaths in a given year. So far, there have been 103 deaths already this year, including Heather Flanagan, 19, of Tuckerton, who died while crossing Route 72 in Stafford Township on Aug. 5 and Casey Feldman, 21, who died while crossing Central Avenue in Ocean City on July 17.

The state is cracking down on inconsiderate and unsafe drivers this summer with a decoy program in which police officers pose as pedestrians.

Towns participating this year include North Wildwood, Sea Isle City and Ocean City in Cape May County; Northfield, Somers Point, Pleasantville, Longport and Ventnor in Atlantic County; and Vineland in Cumberland County.

Cape May County Sheriff Gary Schaffer said drivers are not always exclusively to blame.

"It's drivers and pedestrians both," he said. "You have to step into the crosswalk, look both ways and make sure it's safe. Cars need a reasonable distance to stop. A crosswalk doesn't mean you can immediately walk."

Part of it might be cultural, Schaffer said. He recalled his honeymoon 27 years ago in the pedestrian-friendly state of Hawaii, where drivers made a point to stop.

"Those cars stopped instantaneously. If you didn't start walking right away, they'd beep their horns," he said.

His officers will help Cape May County's shore towns with the decoy program as part of their "Think Safety" campaign.

Michael Trivelas, of Holland, Pa., said his rural hometown has few sidewalks and even fewer pedestrians. Learning to share the road with bicyclists and pedestrians can take some adjustment.

"Pedestrians should have the right of way" he said. "Down here, there is such an influx of people. As a driver, you have to be even more careful."

While driving on the island's crowded roads, Trivelas said he is especially mindful of little children, who often lag behind or even dart ahead of their parents encumbered with beach gear.

Joanne Maher, who is staying on 20th Street this summer, said she learned as a child how to cross the street.

The message - reinforced in old episodes of "Little Rascals," stayed with her through adulthood, she said.

"Stop, look and listen," she said.

E-mail Michael Miller:

New Jersey's law

39:4-36a. - The driver of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within a marked crosswalk or within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection, except at crosswalks when the movement of traffic is being regulated by police officers or traffic control signals … but no pedestrian shall suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is impossible for the driver to yield. Nothing contained herein shall relieve a pedestrian from using due care for his safety.

Tips for walkers

Wear brightly colored or reflective clothing at night.

Walk on sidewalks when possible and always cross at the corner, especially at marked crosswalks and traffic lights.

Make eye-contact with drivers before crossing.

Never cross between cars in traffic.

Do not attempt to cross while talking or texting on a cell phone.

Source: New Jersey Office of Highway Traffic Safety

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