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Safety Must Come Before Profits

Sat., Jan. 6, 1996, midnight

In 1965, consumer advocate Ralph Nader wrote a book taking the U.S. auto industry to task for emphasizing profits and style over safety: “Unsafe at Any Speed.”

The theme and title could apply to the dangerous Riverbend Avenue and pedestrian crossings dividing the Post Falls Factory Outlets. To save a few bucks, the mall developer and city officials brushed aside warnings that the three crosswalks spray-painted across a five-lane roadway invited tragedy.

Now Shannon Wilhelm, a hard-working 19-year-old, is dead, and everyone is rushing to fix the traffic hazard. We’ve seen this postmortem traffic drill before. The city of Coeur d’Alene finally fixed a dangerous intersection near North Idaho College last year - after a student was fatally injured in a two-car crash.

Communities should fix major traffic hazards before tragedy strikes. And developers, like Benderson Development Co. of Buffalo, N.Y., which built and operates the factory outlets, shouldn’t look for reasons not to provide safety for employees and customers.

Benderson had a technical excuse not to install traffic lights or a skywalk, and city officials reluctantly bought into it. A 1992 traffic study predicted only 10 percent of people visiting the outlet center would walk between the two buildings. The other 90 percent would drive to one set of stores, shop, then drive across Riverbend Avenue to other side or leave.

For the sake of argument, let’s grant that the study was accurate - deadly accurate. Benderson evidently was willing to endanger 10 percent of its future costumers, not to mention employees. In the planning stage, it ignored red flags raised by a former Post Falls city engineer who lobbied for a pedestrian stoplight.

After the Dec. 29 accident, a litany of complaints surfaced from employees. One outlet manager said she almost hit a pedestrian herself during the Christmas holidays. Another said drivers can barely see pedestrians at night: “When the cars are turning, they can’t see you at all unless their lights hit you right on.”

A witness said truck driver Jordan Tuthill of Coeur d’Alene was driving slowly and didn’t apply his brakes before hitting Wilhelm. He probably didn’t see her. She was wearing dark clothes after dark in one of North Idaho’s most dangerous crosswalks.

Now, Mayor Jim Hammond has promised to do everything to fix the hazard, and the developer is willing to chip in money to help. Those reactions are commendable. But this tragedy wouldn’t have happened if the developer had put safety above profits. Right, Ralph Nader?

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = D.F. Oliveria/For the editorial board

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