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A small price to pay for saving lives

I almost killed a guy the other night.

It was dark and raining. The streetlights barely cut through the gloom. I was driving south on Delaware Avenue, in the right lane, just past the S-curve. He was walking in the street because this is Buffalo in winter.

The sidewalk was covered with mushy snow, but the road was plowed down to pavement. He had drifted into the edge of the driving lane to get past a few parked cars. He wore a dark coat with the hood up and dark pants, and he blended into the night like a big smudge.

It was only because my headlight caught his movements in its glare that I saw him. I jerked the wheel, just missing him.

Winter is here, and we have returned to our great Russian roulette pastime -- walking in the road. Snow piles high, sidewalks go unshoveled, and the street becomes the path of least resistance. Something has to give, and every winter, it is the bones and internal organs -- and sometimes the lives -- of people who walk on cleared roads rather than slog through knee-high sidewalk snow.

Note to pedestrians: Drivers can barely see you, especially at night when you wear dark clothes. The guy I nearly ran over was just one of a handful of road walkers whom I have barely seen this season. Included was a guy in dark clothes riding his bike with no reflectors the wrong way at night on Delaware. It was either a new event in the X-Games or a suicide attempt.

So, yes, I like Amherst's idea last week to plow sidewalks along its main roads. Other places should think about doing the same. Cities and towns can slap homeowners with a blizzard of no-shovel citations. But with all of the absentee landlords and empty buildings and vacant lots, there are long stretches on most main roads where a shovel never hits the sidewalk.

Justin Buchholtz last month became the first official casualty of the season. The Cheektowaga man, dressed in dark clothing, was run over by an SUV while walking on Transit Road one weeknight. The sidewalk was buried under snow and plow residue. He died the next day.

Amherst officials are not waiting for an accident to happen. Guy Marlette wants to create sidewalk snowplowing districts along such main roads as Transit and Maple. Property owners on those streets would pay about $50 a year, likely to a private contractor, to have their sidewalks plowed.

The idea dates back a couple of years, to a winter night when Marlette -- a Town Board member -- and his wife were driving on Sheridan Drive. The car in front of them swerved, barely missing two teenagers walking in the road.

"My wife turned and said to me, 'You have to do something about these sidewalks,' " Marlette told me.

He did a pilot study, he found out that Rochester pays private contractors to clear sidewalks, and a plan was born. Residents living along busy roads would pay about $50 to have their sidewalks cleared. That is about the cost of a citation if you don't shovel. Sidewalk plowing would take a load off their minds, and off their backs -- while keeping people safe. Nobody likes a new tax. But only the folks affected would pay it, and in return, they get their sidewalks shoveled for the season. I wish somebody would offer me that deal.

Amherst is no stranger to snow-driven tragedy. On a wintry night 10 years ago, three teens were killed by a car while walking on Niagara Falls Boulevard. Three lives, sacrificed to a snow-clogged sidewalk. Talk about senseless.

Marlette thinks the sidewalk-plowing idea has a good chance of flying. For 50 bucks, folks along major roads get their sidewalks cleared for the winter, saving themselves the trouble -- and maybe save some lives. Sounds like a bargain.


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