About an hour before sunrise Tuesday, John C. Strasser started walking across Niagara Falls Boulevard. It’s a behemoth of a thoroughfare, especially in the dark.
The 62-year-old Amherst man, assisted by his rolling walker, never made it all the way across the roadway’s five lanes.
Once the sun came up, Strasser’s mangled walker could be seen about 30 yards from the point of impact with a black Ford SUV, on the curb of the Town of Tonawanda side of the street.
Strasser became the fourth pedestrian in a little more than three years to be struck and killed while crossing a 2.8-mile, heavily commercial stretch of Niagara Falls Boulevard that straddles the border of Amherst and the Town of Tonawanda. Like Tuesday’s incident, two of the other fatalities took place when it was dark out.
“Everything’s a little dark then at that time and people blend in,” Amherst Police Capt. Patrick M. McKenna said, “and sometimes they’re just not seen by the driver.”
Police received a call at 5:43 a.m. about the collision in the intersection of the boulevard, Roger Chaffee Drive and Thistle Avenue.
The scene was only about a third of a mile from Strasser’s apartment on Peppertree Drive, just east of the boulevard.
The speed limit in that area is 45 mph.
This section of Niagara Falls Boulevard lacks streetlights. The closest roadway lamp stands about 35 feet from the boulevard on Roger Chaffee Drive.
“Trying to get across five lanes without the help of a traffic light is a little dangerous,” McKenna told reporters early Tuesday.
Strasser, a former florist who was disabled, was rushing across the street to try to catch a bus because he was supposed to move into a new apartment Tuesday, according to Ashley Varol, 32, a niece of Strasser who lives in Cincinnati.
“He was a great guy and a very simple man and though he didn’t have much money living on a government disability pension, he always sent me a card for my birthday,” Varol said.
One of six brothers and sisters, Strasser “was a very thoughtful” man, Varol added.
He is mourned also by over 20 nieces and nephews, she added.
Police identified the driver of the SUV as Brandon C. Smith, 20, of Buffalo.
Smith’s SUV was headed north when the crash happened. Smith pulled over promptly and has cooperated in the investigation.
“He’s very shaken,” McKenna said of Smith.
Police said there was no indication that alcohol or drugs were a factor in the crash. No charges had been filed as of early Thursday afternoon.
Investigators will be looking into the level of darkness at the time of the collision, as well as the lightness or darkness of Strasser’s clothing, among other factors. Smith gave police a statement Tuesday morning.
At least three other people have been killed in recent years trying to cross the boulevard in that area.
Two women were killed in 2013 in separate incidents crossing Niagara Falls Boulevard at Willow Ridge Road, about a half-mile from where Strasser was killed Tuesday.
On June 5 of that year, Jeraldine Tater was killed crossing the boulevard at about 5 a.m. At the time, police said she was crossing against a green light and was dressed in dark clothing.
Shortly after 9 a.m. on Aug. 9, 2013, Lisa Monaco was killed as she crossed the boulevard to wait for a bus.
Then on Feb. 12, 2014, at about 9 p.m., Sharon L. Alfiere was killed crossing the boulevard near East Robinson Road, about 3 miles away from the two 2013 deaths.
Back in January 2015, former Amherst Councilman Guy R. Marlette proposed inviting the Town of Tonawanda to the table for a joint planning commission for Niagara Falls Boulevard. Part of the goal was to address years of haphazard planning along the corridor that had contributed to the congested mishmash that had made for what some describe as a less-than-appealing streetscape. Traffic issues that arose as a result were also supposed to be addressed by the joint planning commission.
Amherst Deputy Supervisor Steven D. Sanders on Tuesday said the town planning department was tasked with reaching out to their counterparts in the Town of Tonawanda but, so far, he is unaware of any progress that has been made on the initiative.
“I remember, initially, Tonawanda had kind of expressed a lack of interest,” Sanders said.
Meanwhile, Sanders said there have been no calls to reduce the 45 mph speed limit along the boulevard, which is either six lanes or four lanes in some sections.
“Most of the issues seem to be related to crosswalks or lighting or other kind of similar issues ... to kind of improve safety,” he said.
Sanders on Tuesday said it would be difficult to make traffic safe for pedestrians who don’t follow traffic safety rules.
“Unfortunately, there is always going to be situations where people are going to think that they’re safely crossing in the middle of a street or not when they have the right-of-way,” he said.
Sanders said driver inattention and other distractions are also difficult to police.
“We can spend billions of dollars and build raised crosswalks with elevators up and down the street, but some people aren’t going to use them,” he said
“I think the important point is we want to be practical. I don’t want to do a knee-jerk reaction,” Sanders added.
He said town officials won’t begin to know what is the appropriate response to Tuesday's fatal accident until McKenna completes his investigation into what caused the accident.
“If it’s a unique set of circumstances, well then reducing the speed and installing a lot more traffic signals or those HAWK crosswalks or whatever else isn’t necessarily going to solve the problem,” Sanders said.
“However, if it was a systemic problem or some existing problem that we can address, then certainly I would encourage the state to make those improvements so we don’t have those problems again in the future,” he added.
In the last few years, the state Department of Transportation has made improvements at 18 intersections with traffic signals along the corridor between Sheridan Drive and East Robinson Road, according to Susan Surdej, a department spokeswoman.
“So that was through the area where the accident took place this morning. That intersection at Roger Chaffee Drive was not improved. It’s a non-signalized intersection,” Surdej said.
Those pedestrian improvements, which were conducted between 2012 and 2014, an included either replacing or updating traffic signals, ensuring they all have countdown timers and enhanced pavement markings. In addition, new wheelchair-accessible curb ramps were installed at all the corners. Surdej said the state contracts for these improvements were initiated prior to Amherst police having requested a meeting with state DOT officials after two female pedestrians were killed within two months of each other in 2013 while attempting to cross intersections on the boulevard near the Amherst-Town of Tonawanda border.
“We did look at the locations of those previous fatalities. If you remember with those previous fatalities, the police reports ended up attributing those to the pedestrians crossing against the signal and wearing dark clothing during dark hours,” Surdej said.
On Tuesday, police asked that any witnesses to the morning’s crash contact investigators at 689-1311.