You better watch out for Santa Claus in a crosswalk

Maybe an aggressive pedestrian awareness campaign has paid off, or perhaps motorists wanted no part of telling their children they plowed over Santa Claus right before Christmas.

Whichever was the case, law enforcement officers and safety officials said fewer drivers were ticketed for failing to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk on Tuesday morning.

Santa, played by Las Vegas police officer Mike Lemley, made the sometimes treacherous trek across a midblock crosswalk on Nellis Boulevard. Motorists who blew through the walkway were chased down by Santa’s reindeer, which in this case were uniformed officers on motorcycles.

Officers’ noses were red from the chilly breeze, but motorists’ faces were redder when they realized that they still weren’t minding crosswalk laws despite the 29 pedestrian fatalities that have been recorded in the valley this year. They probably also realized they should have questioned why Santa was sauntering across Nellis in his bright red suit.

“It’s not that they’re not willing to stop,” Las Vegas police Capt. Mark Tavarez said of the drivers. “They’re just not paying attention.”

At the end of the day, police wrote 64 citations for right-of-way violations, 16 for passing a stopped vehicle, 35 for administrative violations — such as driving without a valid license, registration or insurance — five for seat belt violations and four for other moving violations.

In addition, 16 of the motorists cited did not stop when vehicles in neighboring lanes had. The law requires motorists to slow down and determine why the cars are stopped. If a pedestrian is crossing a divided street, all vehicles must stop on the side the person is walking.

Las Vegas police and UNLV’s Safe Community Partnership joined Tuesday to follow up their enforcement Thanksgiving week, when Lemley, dressed as a turkey, played Officer Butterball. They first hit Nellis at Cedar Avenue, then Charleston Boulevard and 11th Street.

Call the effort a focused enforcement, not a sting, organizers said, because how could a sting involve a man in a Santa suit with a badge pinned to his hat? And, they asked, how could a sting involve an officer who purposely starts to walk before the motorist is within 450 feet, the distance a car would need to stop if it were traveling 60 mph?

“A sting has a different connotation,” said Erin Breen, director of Safe Community Partnership. “If they don’t give you time to stop, it’s a sting. They are trying to send a message. Our goal today is not for 100 people to get a ticket — although 100 people probably will.”

While some drivers still are not paying attention or do not understand the law, more motorists were complying with the law Tuesday than during past crosswalk enforcement missions, Breen said.

“Before, we had 12 guys out here who couldn’t write tickets fast enough,” she said.

Breen has noticed both motorists and pedestrians respecting crosswalk laws since 6-year-old Mia Decker was killed near a North Las Vegas park in October. Media outlets have reported on the issue continuously, and law enforcement has saturated the airwaves with public service announcements.

Tavarez said the mentality of motorists must change, and it shouldn’t take the fear of injuring Santa Claus to do it. He recalled seeing three motorists stop on the freeway recently to guide a lost puppy to safety. Unfortunately, he said, that probably would not have happened if the puppy were a person.

“People will stop for animals,” he said. “But people think people should look out for themselves.”

Transportation engineers and law enforcement realize that pedestrian versus vehicle accidents are not always human error. Tavarez, who has been with Las Vegas police for more than two decades, said the city’s sudden population explosion contributed to the problem. Streets were widened with little thought for pedestrians, who are sometimes forced to leave narrow sidewalks and walk on the road.

Transportation experts are working toward inexpensive but effective crosswalk controls, and officers are focusing on problem areas. Motorists should know they have come upon a problem area if Santa is crossing the street with his motorized reindeer in tow, prepared to hand out citations and buttons that say: “Santa Claus is coming to town. Please don’t hit him.”

Contact reporter Adrienne Packer at apacker@review
journal.com or 702-387-2904.

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