Racing to BEAT THE CLOCKBy Jonathan Curiel
Judd Klement saw the flashing hand and the signal that gave him eight seconds to cross Van Ness Avenue and decided to take a chance: Without hesitating, Klement ran across the intersection, making it safely to the other side before the light turned red.
Klement was surprised to see the countdown clocks at Van Ness and Market Street this morning, but he was grateful that they could caution him with such precision.
"Usually, I'll run right across, not knowing the time," said Klement, 26, an environmental consultant.
City workers installed San Francisco's first pedestrian countdown clocks yesterday at the intersection of Van Ness and Market. This morning, the clocks were working, letting walkers, bikers, joggers and others know how much time was left to get across the street.
For those who crossed Van Ness Avenue, a wide boulevard that is one of San Francisco's busiest, the clocks began flashing with 24 seconds left on the green light. For people crossing one side of Market Street to the other, the clocks began flashing with just 14 seconds left. (It takes less time to get across Market Street than Van Ness Avenue.)
Within two weeks, 13 other San Francisco intersections will have the countdown clocks, which city officials hope will reduce the number of accidents involving vehicles and people in the street.
"If we can save one life and prevent one injury, that's what they are there for," said Police Chief Fred Lau, who -- along with Mayor Willie Brown and other city officials -- inspected the new clocks this morning.
Last year at this time, 10 pedestrians had already been killed by vehicles in San Francisco. As of this morning, three pedestrians have been fatally injured on city streets since the beginning of the year.
The clocks, which are already used in Walnut Creek, San Ramon and other Bay Area cities, may not be a panacea that prevents every accident in San Francisco, but they are an important part of a citywide plan to change people's habits at intersections, officials say.
Big yellow crosswalks, for example, are replacing white crosswalks at high- volume intersections throughout San Francisco.
The California State Automobile Association is paying for the first 10 sets of countdown clocks, at a cost of $50,000. City funds will cover 32 clocks at other intersections.
Stosh Wychulus, 51, is one of those pedestrians who thinks the clocks will work.
"This is absolutely super," said Wychulus, an educational consultant who crossed Van Ness Avenue this morning and barely beat the clock.
"I think, particularly people who have mobility problems, older people especially, it should make a big difference -- because you have no idea (how much time is left)," Wychulus said. "When it's blinking, people still cross. I don't usually."
State law makes it illegal to begin crossing the street when a red hand or light is flashing, though people routinely ignore the flashing signal and cross the street anyway. This morning at Market and Van Ness, officials with the California State Automobile Association handed pedestrians brochures that detailed safety tips and state laws.
Once the officials and Lau and Brown had left the intersection, however, whole groups of people walked across the streets at the very last moment, despite the countdown clocks.
Modifying pedestrians' behavior will take time. Drivers' habits are another issue.
"Everyone who uses the streets must get involved -- walkers and drivers," Brown said.
Yesterday, Wychulus recalled three recent incidents at the intersection of Van Ness and Market in which he prevented potentially serious accidents. One time, Wychulus said, he grabbed a man who was talking on his cell phone, stopping him from crossing with little time left and a vehicle oncoming.
"This is a really horrible intersection," Wychulus said.
"Notice," he said, pointing to people rushing across Van Ness Avenue with the clock's seconds ticking away, "that people are becoming much more aware."
Copyright ©2001 San Francisco Chronicle. Published 03/29/2001.