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Sheridan Drive: Proceed with caution ... and fear

Every time my grandfather would prepare to make the left turn onto Sheridan Drive from the Sheridan Plaza - the one Paula's Donuts now occupies - he said the same thing: “I have to get under the insaflinger.”

The thing he was referring to was an overhead metal arm at the plaza's east end with a small plastic or glass "eye" at the end that appeared to have an impact on the traffic signal turning to green when a driver maneuvered a vehicle underneath.

I don’t know if the word he called it or the thing itself was real; I just know that when that light turned green, and six lanes of traffic screeched to a halt to the left and right of us, time stood still and I held my breath as he made the turn.

Such was life when you grew up in the Town of Tonawanda in the 1970s, where you were taught to fear and respect Sheridan Drive, the bogeyman of suburban thoroughfares.

And now, thanks to the new, paved 4-mile trail that runs from University Heights almost to the Erie Canal, we are encouraging people to push strollers, pull wagons, run, jog, walk, bike or roller blade across Sheridan.

A view of Sheridan Drive traffic from above.

A view of Sheridan Drive traffic from above.

There’s no insaflinger at the crossing, but there is a traffic control device operated by pedestrians that allows them to control when traffic starts and stops and, in theory, will allow them to cross the road unscathed.

In theory.

It’s too much for some people to believe that the device – a high intensity activated crosswalk beacon nicknamed the HAWK – will truly work and allow people to make the heretofore always-risky decision to willingly cross Sheridan on foot.

Scoff all you want about the online petition that calls for a pedestrian bridge to be placed there as an alternative. But before you scoff, understand that the fear is not misplaced.

This is what the Amherst Planning Department said about Sheridan Drive, in its February 2000 Eggertsville Action Plan: “Sheridan Drive is extremely unfriendly to pedestrians due to its excessive width, multiple driveways, high traffic volumes, turning movements, and large building setbacks with large pavement areas. Sidewalks do exist, however very few people walk along this corridor.”

Translation: “Do not walk on or near Sheridan Drive. Sheridan Drive is for cars. Why do you think we put ‘Drive’ in the name?”

Under ideal circumstances, crossing Sheridan on foot always has been dicey for two reasons: because of how wide it is - as many as eight lanes plus a median and/or a turning lane in some places; and because of how frustrated motorists become from the non-timed barrage of traffic signals they face at major cross streets such as Military Road and Delaware Avenue.

I can’t prove this, but I believe the Town of Tonawanda police headquarters building was built on Sheridan Drive as a subtle reminder to motorists that if they have a mind to zoom through a stale yellow light on Sheridan, the next light they see could be the red-flashing kind in the rear-view mirror.

In my lifetime, the only truly safe place to cross Sheridan on foot has been the metal pedestrian bridge that runs over the street just east of Delaware Road. Ed Adamczyk, the town historian, said the bridge was built in 1966 to get children to and from then-Hoover Elementary School. The school opened in 1951“before a walk across Sheridan Drive got exciting.”

The only safe way to cross Sheridan Drive on foot since 1966.

The only safe way to cross Sheridan Drive on foot since 1966.

It’s only gotten more “exciting” since then.

And now we have the HAWK to try to minimize the risk.

Like any traffic control device, it is not foolproof. Walkers have reported seeing motorists slam on the brakes at the last second as they came upon the crossing, which makes me worry that they are not paying attention. Some drivers have said they were confused about what to do at the flashing red light, which makes me wonder whether they know that any flashing red traffic light means stop before proceeding with caution.

The planners, the police and the pedestrians – the hopeful ones, anyway - all say the HAWK should work, that it will just take time for people to adjust.

I think that’s right. If everyone pays attention, it should all be fine.

In theory.

Video below was taken the first day the HAWK signal was activated




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