SL rallies around accident victim

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SPIRIT LAKE — Catherine Graf has done her part to make Spirit Lake a better place.

Now the community is rallying to increase safety along Highway 41, where the longtime volunteer was struck by a vehicle while crossing the road in town on Saturday afternoon.

Graf, 77, remained in critical condition at Kootenai Health on Wednesday afternoon.

"Cathy is such a loved person in town," Mayor Renee Eastman said. "She and her husband (Guy) are awesome people and it’s sad to see something like this happen. We can all learn lessons and try to improve the situation."

According to Spirit Lake Police, Graf, who is involved in the community’s garden club, Tree of Sharing at Christmas to benefit residents in need, and other efforts, was crossing Highway 41 at 2:20 p.m. in a marked crosswalk at Jefferson Street when she was struck by a white 2004 Mazda driven by Vicki Kolar, 43, Rathdrum.

Police said Kolar had stopped for Graf when the Mazda was rear-ended by a tan 2005 Toyota Sienna driven by Tamara Shearer, 32, Blanchard. Police said Shearer was distracted and did not yield to the pedestrian situation ahead. Charges are pending.

Drugs or alcohol do not appear to be a factor in the accident, police said.

Eastman said the city contacted the Idaho Transportation Department this week on possible steps to improve safety.

One idea is lowering the speed limit on Highway 41 in Spirit Lake from 35 mph to 25 mph. The speed in the school zone is reduced to 25 mph during school hours.

"I’d like to see it dropped to 25 at all times," Eastman said.

Megan Stausser, ITD public information specialist, said ITD must first conduct a speed study to determine how fast vehicles are traveling before changing a speed limit. Other factors are the number of intersections along the highway, and geography.

The last time ITD fully collected and analyzed speed data on Highway 41 at Spirit Lake was in 2007.

"We have data from 2017, but it has not been analyzed yet," Sausser said.

Lowering the speed limit does not always reduce crashes so it can be a delicate balance, she said.

"Lowering speed limits can slow down some drivers, but other drivers may still continue to speed, creating a dangerous speed differential that can lead to more crashes," she said.

Eastman said the city is also planning police emphasis patrols and improving lighting at intersections so pedestrians are more visible at night. Another idea is speed display signs that flash how fast motorists are driving as they pass by.

"We’re examining all avenues," she said.

Speed display signs, while well-intended to educate drivers, can also lead to crashes if drivers suddenly change their speed when a sign flashes at them and someone is following close, which occurs regularly on busy straight stretches in town, Sausser said.

While inattentive driving appears to be a factor in Saturday’s crash, there’s still a broader need to improve safety and educate drivers, Eastman said.

Eastman said the city was planning some of the safety measures for this spring ahead of the busy summer months, but the accident has accelerated and heightened those efforts.

Meanwhile, in the interim, the Chamber of Commerce has decided to pay $400 toward signage in the Highway 41 corridor reminding motorists to slow down and pay attention. Residents say the number of accidents and near-misses along the busy 1-mile stretch in recent years is concerning.

"This is a walking town and people need to slow down and be extra cautious of pedestrians," said Marc Kroetch, a business owner who is leading the sign effort. "The tagline will be something to the effect of, ‘Please refrain from running over our citizens,’ so people will get what we are saying. We wanted to do something now while it’s on people’s minds."

Kroetch said he expects the signs, about the size of political roadside signs, will be up next week and in place for about six weeks.

"When there’s more daylight in the evenings, we’ll remove them," he said. "This is something we can do today to get people talking about it. It sounds like this was an accident that should not have happened."

Kroetch said the highway stretch has been particularly concerning in the late afternoons or early evenings when people tend to be in a hurry to get home. Other residents said pedestrians who don’t use the crosswalks and wear dark-colored clothing at night have been a concern. Eastman said she also has had trouble seeing such pedestrians at night.

Kroetch said there was some concern that the signs will be left up for the rest of the year, but that won’t be the case.

"We don’t want to junk up the visual of the town," he said.

Eastman agreed on the temporary aspect of the signs.

"After a while, people will become blinded to them," she said.

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