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Highland Park's Most Nefarious Intersection

What makes Second and Central so terrifying?

Park benches tell no tales. 

If they could, though, the benches at the intersection of Second Street and Central Avenue in Highland Park would be applying for police badges. These benches overlook one of the most (justifiably) feared intersections in all of Highland Park.

Last month, an while riding through this busy downtown intersection. In a bit of a local area rush to judgment, the comments on  Patch about the story speculate as to the conditions of the collision. Was the driver distracted? Was the boy wearing safety equipment? Was it a government cover-up?

To a degree, the speculation was justified. Let's get it out in the open--Highland Park drivers have a reputation. We exhibit a level of impatience, distractedness and downright self-righteousness on our streets that just doesn't exist in other suburbs. 

Nowhere does that play out more than at Second Street and Central Avenue, the busiest intersection in downtown Highland Park. With a four-way stop, turn lanes, and near-constant crosswalk use, this intersection is feared by pedestrians and challenging to drivers. Our city government recognized the danger at this intersection even before the recent collision and posted additional "Street Smarts" signage at the Second Street crosswalks. 

For years, I have felt that Second and Central is an intersection to be avoided when possible, especially on foot, and I have talked with many friends and neighbors who feel the same.

I recently spent an hour observing this intersection over two successive weekend days (one of which was Memorial Day). In just a short amount of time, I witnessed the following driver bad behavior:

  • 14 turns made without the use of directional indicators--I guess the saying about them being optional in Highland Park is true. 
  • 10 drivers who either proceeded through the intersection before it was their turn or just plain didn't stop.
  • Three drivers who failed to wait for pedestrians crossing in the crosswalk.
  • Two of the worst kind of driver, who honked at cars in front of them--cars that were stopped for pedestrians in the crosswalk.
  • Two illegal left turns into parking spaces.
  • Two bicyclists who didn't stop before entering the intersection.
  • Two drivers who went straight from the left turn lane.

Nobody got hurt, of course, and on the plus side, I "only" saw 13 drivers holding cell phones, a few days ahead of the new hands-free phone ordinance that takes effect June 1. It will be interesting to see if the statistics are similar in school drop-off line this week, or a month or two after the ordinance is enforced. 

It seems to me that few, if any, of the dozens of traffic violations I witnessed over the weekend were related to distracted driving. In a way, that's more disappointing, because it means that the behavior was frequently willful and conscious. We can do better.

Increased enforcement would help significantly. According to Highland Park police records I obtained for Patch, only seven traffic-related tickets and five warnings have been issued at Second and Central thus far in 2011. During 2010, eight traffic-related tickets and 10 warnings were issued. In 2009, 24 tickets and 27 warnings were issued.

In short, in my single hour at that intersection last weekend, I could have issued more tickets and warnings than were written by the Highland Park police in the last 17 months.

I realize it is impractical for police to stand constant guard at any single intersection in town. Still, were police to pick one single weekend and issue warnings for every infraction at this intersection, it would send a clear and consistent message that bad driver behavior in Highland Park will no longer be tolerated. This will benefit all of us--residents, businesses, visitors and bikers.

Short of enforcement, there are few options -- but for now, I'll be crossing at Central and First.

Keeper June 01, 2011 at 12:43 PM
Didn't the city downsize the police department by dissmantling the traffic division? As I understand it these types of dangerous intersections were normally enforced by them.
Betsy Brint June 01, 2011 at 01:35 PM
I'd like to give a shout out to two additional dangerous intersections: 1. Elm Place and First Street. This is a three-way stop due to the railroad tracks - but drivers at the three stop signs almost never realize that the cars traveling west on Elm Place will not stop. 2. Elm Place and Sheridan. No stop sign on Sheridan and many, many children crossing (with guard - usually) to go to and from school. Some parents illegally drop off kids on Sheridan causing other traffic to go around them - and cars going relatively fast since there are few stops signs on Sheridan.
Sam Shepard June 01, 2011 at 02:43 PM
I'll echo Betsy and add Elm Place and Green Bay where pedestrians crossing on the south side of Elm Place frequently are nearly hit dead on by impatient drivers taking a left hand turn. I've crossed that street behind 2 senior citizens and pushing a stroller myself and we all almost got creamed because a car failed to yield. The cause of the problem there, as in many other intersections including the one Ed mentioned, are drivers who don't know the rules of the road regarding four way intersections or are too arrogant and impatient to care. For such a nice community with so many wonderful schools, parks, shopping and amenities, Highland Park has a lot of work to do to make the downtown core pedestrian friendly. Maybe the new Mayor will work on that?
forest barbieri June 01, 2011 at 02:57 PM
While HP is far from unique in it's "interesting"driving habits, it does pose certain challenges and unfortunate memorable moments. My 9 year old still talks about an incident when she was 3 and we walked to town for ice cream. As we began our walk home with her on her training wheeled bike and me right beside her, we began crossing the street and a car came quickly around the corner directly at us, I yelled and instinctively threw my ice cream cone at the car. The car merely continued on it's way with it's new windshield decoration, seemingly ignoring both us and the ice cream as I pulled my daughter out of the way. To this day I hear, "dad, remember when you threw the ice cream at the car?" Not sure it was my most positive parenting moment but one embedded in her memory. One of my favorites is the time I parked my Motorcycle in front of Starbucks on a busy morning that had few parking spots available and a large 4 X 4 pulled up and yelled out the window, "do you really need to take up that whole spot?" Followed by, " can't you park on the sidewalk"...meaning...are'nt I a little more entitled to that spot so I am not inconvienced than your 850 pound Harley? It is also fun to see someone that wants a parking space stop in the middle of the road for what seems 10 minutes blocking all traffic while they merely wait for someone that may come back to a car and leave to provide them with a spot. No circling for them! Be Careful Out There:)
Bob Levi June 01, 2011 at 02:58 PM
Over the years, I've sat on those same benches at Second and Central and watched the craziness. One vision popped into my mind: Four cars collide in the intersection simultaneously. All four drivers are on their cell phones. Of course, they're talking to each other! BTW - On two occasions while driving, I've stopped next to drivers (facing them driver-to-driver) as people were waiting to make U-turns into parking spaces, I pointed out the no-U-turn signs up and down the CBD streets. Subsequently, neither of them made the planned illegal turns. One person had the audacity to tell me they weren't making a U-turn. I neglected to ask what type of turn they thought they were making. Could it have been a "C-turn?" I seem to recall talking to the police years ago and asking if a citizen report of illegal driving had any merit. I was told that details needed to be reported (license plate, time of day, violation, etc.) and the police would issue a warning. I wonder if that process is still viable. One doesn't have to travel very far to seek adventure. We have it right here in good old Highland Park.
J William Gimbel III June 01, 2011 at 04:24 PM
I concur with all the above. I walk around town all the time and see serious violations daily. It is dangerous and totally terrible behavior. When these drivers hurt or kill someone they may get a sense of the real world. Let them spend some time at 26th and California in Chicago. Bill Gimbel III
Shannon June 01, 2011 at 04:49 PM
Elm and green bay is like an episode of survivor.
Ed Brill June 01, 2011 at 05:04 PM
Lot of votes here and offline for Elm and Green Bay. At least there the pedestrian traffic is less-frequent, other than at school times (and then there is a crossing guard). I don't want to make a series out of this, but I might come back and look at others in the weeks ahead. I hope that there is an opportunity for increased enforcement at these key intersections.
Andrew June 01, 2011 at 06:50 PM
Terrific article. In addition to Second and Central, I'll support the vote for Green Bay and Elm. The fact that that crosswalk could be the link between the Sunset Woods neighborhood and the downtown shopping district makes it only more sad. It would be an easy bike trip through the park and across Green Bay if you didn't feel like you were taking your life into your hands. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that the sidewalk on the west side of the street is so narrow, there's hardly room for a pedestrian, much less a bike. In general, Highland Park strikes me as extremely car-centric. Too late to put the parking only in lots or behind the businesses, but perhaps Green Bay could be narrowed a bit. Maybe even a pedestrian island? As for a reporting system, the Highland Park police did have a form online up until recently. (I had used it to report a driver on a cell-phone zipping past a school bus that was loading up with kids). Unfortunately, that online form no longer exists. Interestingly, it's been replaced by a more involved form that allows reports of all other sorts-- check it out here: http://www.cityhpil.com/index.aspx?nid=437 One other possibility: I lived in a city in which one particular neighborhood was renowned for its residents stopping and staring down drivers who were failing to yield at crosswalks (on a major five lane road!). It seemed really weird, but it was the only neighborhood in the city where drivers learned to yield to pedestrians. Religiously.
Andrew June 01, 2011 at 06:51 PM
PS. Noticed MANY fewer drivers on cell phones in the school zones today.
Lee Smith June 01, 2011 at 08:39 PM
Mr. Brill's observations are timely. It is a given that one should not be endangered crossing a street or bicycling for fun or errands. To that end, on Saturday, June 25th (at 11 a.m.) and on Wednesday, June 29th (at 7 p.m.) the City will hold community meetings to discuss and gather input related to the non-motorized (bicycle and pedestrian) transportation system in Highland Park. The meetings will be held at the Police Station at 1677 Old Deerfield Road. At these meetings Highland Park residents are invited to discuss existing conditions for bicyclists and pedestrians and the barriers that prevent them from bicycling and walking more. In addition, there will be opportunities to identify and discuss, for example, potential locations that would benefit from improvements such as filling in gaps in the sidewalk system or the addition of on-street bike lanes or on-street markings for shared use of the roadways. All City residents are invited to attend. The meeting presentations and formats will be the same, so if you can't make the Saturday morning meeting, please try to attend the one on Wednesday evening. Also, please take the web-based Highland park Bicycle and Pedestrian Survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/HPBIKE-PEDSURVEY. For more information, please contact me, Lee Smith, Senior Planner, with the City of Highland Park at lsmith@cityhpil.com.
Sue Bergen June 01, 2011 at 10:25 PM
I have often thought that second street and central would be an ideal area for a pedestrian precinct with vehicle access limited to delivery vehicles and handicapped drivers! It already has the feeling of being the center of the city, and feeling uneasy crossing the street is an unhappy experience. This may be a totally European concept, but just think how pleasant it would be to hear traffic zooming past only on Green Bay Road, and to a lesser extent, first street! I already avoid the area if I can, which is not at all what the commercial interests want to hear!
Nancy Rotering June 02, 2011 at 03:47 PM
Great article, Ed. I encourage everyone to participate in the survey noted by Lee Smith in his comment and to attend the meetings he announced. Safety is paramount and I strongly support taking whatever steps we can to improve pedestrian safety. Take the opportunity today to consider personal driving practices and make ensuring pedestrian safety a first priority.
forest barbieri June 02, 2011 at 04:25 PM
Hey Nancy: I drive by City Hall several times a day and wanted to point out a pedestrian safety issue immediately across the street. There is a crosswalk from the train station that calls for cars to stop when pedestrians are present. However, the shrubs are so high next to the crossing that it is difficult to see a pedestrian and particularly a smaller one standing there as they can be blocked by the shrubs when approaching by car in particular, from North to South. Perhaps someone take a look so we can keep that safe for all. Best Forest
Ed Brill June 02, 2011 at 04:52 PM
Thank you for the comment, Mayor Rotering. I will be attending the meeting on the 25th for sure.
Molly June 02, 2011 at 05:21 PM
I agree with all the above regarding the bad habits of our driving public but I would also like the conversation to extend to the bad habits shown by pedestrians. This would include those who enter an intersection w/o looking first, talking on their cell while entering an intersection and in particular to those who cross Central in between intersections with child in hand. I grew up in a town where the police issued tickets to motorists AND pedestrians who did not follow the rules of the road. To this day I stop, look and proceed before walking across an intersection.
Larry Hillman June 02, 2011 at 05:54 PM
We do have a few overzealous drivers here in HP! I have no clue on how to change that! But I can (and have) suggested ways the City might improve things by making that intersection more friendly. First, (and my favorite) lots of towns put an Officer or NCO in the center of these intersections when they are really busy to help the flow of traffic and keep overzealous drivers in check. Greenwich, CT and Santa Barbara, CA do this. In both, the officer helps with the traffic but also provides friendly directions and the like. It's a really nice touch that add's a lot to their downtowns. Second, a lot can be done to "lubricate" the Deerfield Rd and Park Av/Elm Place bypass routes to entice vehicles driving through town to do so without taking Central Ave. Last week I asked the Traffic Commission to consider this subject. Third, at that same Traffic Commission meeting I asked if the City could be more effective in keeping larger trucks off Central Avenue. They don't belong on that street unless there is no other way for them to reach their destinations. Forth, would be making Central Avenue one way east bound. Again, many towns have had success with this. It reduces traffic movements, accidents and some big problems like "U-Turns" into parking spaces and that one driver who stops blocks of traffic while waiting for a departing cars parking space. I'm a little scared of this solution ... but I think its worth considering.
Ed Brill June 02, 2011 at 06:30 PM
Larry, I heard that the traffic commission looked at the one-way issue again at their last meeting and turned it down. As I recall Central was one-way many years ago. I personally think there might be some benefit to doing so again for this one street. The Deerfield Road "bypass" has long since ceased to be a bypass as stoplights and traffic have increased there. If it was, I would certainly personally choose to take it up to Green Bay before proceeding north to Elm etc. rather than continuing up Central. Last, I like the traffic cop idea, if only occasionally. In the past I have seen non-uniformed officers downtown (wearing yellow polo shirts - I would guess these are the equivalent of interns) but never actively patrolling at the intersection. I think we should try it.
April June 03, 2011 at 02:41 AM
Why not put a traffic light at the corner of Central Avenue and 2nd? Wouldn't that solve most of these concerns and safety issues?
Ed Brill June 03, 2011 at 02:51 AM
I'm not an engineer but I believe there is not enough distance between Green Bay and Second or Second and First for cars to wait for a light. More than about 15 seconds and the backup would go more than a block waiting, and in the direction of either high volume Green Bay Road or the train tracks, that could get pretty dangerous fast.
David Greenberg June 03, 2011 at 08:34 AM
The problems involving traffic in downtown HP are long-term - I recall the same problems happening way back in the 1980's. IF everyone obeyed the traffic laws (drivers and pedestrians alike), there wouldn't be any issues. But regardless of why, the fact of the matter is that many drivers seem to have forgotten how to proceed at a 4-way Stop intersection, and many pedestrians seem to have completely forgotten what *most* Moms taught them when they were young - LOOK BOTH WAYS BEFORE CROSSING THE STREET. I can't even begin to tell you how many times I've seen pedestrians crossing the street in the middle of the block without looking, running out into crosswalks when vehicles are already in motion through the intersection, and so on. There's a number of solutions available - all have various drawbacks and costs. Education of pedestrians and drivers may be the easiest of all. Installing barrier posts down the middle of the street during the Fall, Spring, and Summer may help to prevent illegal u-turns, slow traffic, and prevent pedestrians from crossing in the middle of the street (they'd have to be removed for the Winter season to facilitate snow plowing)...
Dan Jenks June 03, 2011 at 03:05 PM
Forest: I couldn't agree more with your comment about the cross walk in front of City Hall. Because of the shrubs lining the train station, you truly can't see someone at that cross walk until you are top of them (particularly traveling south). I slow down when I approach the cross walk, but I don't think most people do. If pedestrian safety is the paramount concern, then the City should look into other solutions such as cutting back the shrubs or reducing the speed on that stretch of St. Johns.
Betsy Brint June 03, 2011 at 07:52 PM
Saw lots of guys on bicycle patrol at Second and Central today. Also saw lots of people still on cell phones while driving. I'm hoping all the tickets these guys write will create a HUGE budget surplus :)
Larry Hillman June 04, 2011 at 06:58 PM
Ed. The Traffic Commission agreed to look into options for keeping truck traffic off Central and 'lubricating' the bypass routes. The one way option was discussed but took no action was taken. And yes, I agree, the stop signs and lights on Deerfield Road, Park Ave and Elm have made those less than perfect bypass routes. But there's a whole lot of talent on the Traffic Commission ... hopefully they'll come up with some workable ideas that get the congestion from Central Ave.
Molly June 05, 2011 at 01:04 PM
I'm scared to drive in downtown Highland Park. I'm scared I may hit a pedestrian, I'm scared I'll be rear-ended by an impatient driver. I enter every intersection with trepidation and then relief that I got thru safely. I'm very scared that my 15 yr old daughter will soon have to contend with the traffic fiasco known as a four-way stop in Highland Park. Amazing sight of the week: a pedestrian waiting at a crosswalk, two cars passing her w/o stopping but a teen driver stopped at the crosswalk and waited for traffic to stop and for her to cross. I hope he never becomes an impatient driver like us adults. Thanks to the driver in the dark green truck.
forest barbieri June 08, 2011 at 10:33 PM
Thanks Mayor! The shrubs across from city hall have been cut and we can now see pedestrians that need to cross at the crosswalk from the station! It also makes the lot more secure as there is now vision between the lot and the street! Great job and appreciate the quick response to a potentially dangerous situation at the crosswalk. Best
Bob Levi June 08, 2011 at 11:25 PM
One would think that the City Hall staff might have notice the problem since they drive by the intersection every day. I recall several years ago having to notify the city about a parking space on Second St. near Elm Place where any vehicle (and especially a large van) would be halfway out in the southbound lane. This was shortly after Renaissance Place had been completed. The parking spot was a major hazard since cars had to pull into the northbound lane to get around any car parked in that spot. The city checked and found that cutout space was nearly half as long as it should have been. I always wondered how the patrol officers on motorcycles never noticed the problem and a citizen had to notify the city. The spot was finally blocked off, but never should have been allowed in the first place.

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