By BRIAN WALKER
SPIRIT LAKE — When Heather McDaniel went undercover, she was nearly struck while helping expose a problem in Spirit Lake.
The Spirit Lake Police administrative assistant played the role of pedestrian during a crosswalk emphasis patrol along Highway 41 in town on Monday afternoon.
"There was one time when both of my officers were on traffic stops and I continued to cross," she said. "The vehicle stopped so close to me I could reach out and touch the hood."
The patrol was conducted just over a week after longtime community volunteer Catherine Graf, 77, was struck by a vehicle in a chain-reaction accident while walking in a marked crosswalk on Highway 41 at Jefferson Street. Graf remained in critical condition at Kootenai Health on Tuesday afternoon.
McDaniel said in less than an hour during the mid-afternoon emphasis patrol, at least 10 drivers were pulled over for violations. That number could "easily" have been doubled if both officers weren't occupied with stops when other infractions occurred.
She said there were multiple times when a driver would see her at the last second, hit their brakes hard but then proceed when realizing there wasn’t enough room to stop.
She called the experience "eye-opening."
"It's easy to see how quickly an accident could happen with a pedestrian, especially children, who might not be giving the same attention or awareness to passing cars," she said.
McDaniel said this first emphasis was about educating drivers, so no tickets were issued. However, the department plans future emphasis patrols and the officers won't be so forgiving.
Failing to yield to a pedestrian is a $90 ticket. Drivers could also be cited for failing to exercise due care, which is also a $90 penalty.
Each of the offenses also count as three points toward the suspension limit of a person’s driver's license. Licenses are suspended starting at 12 points within a year.
"We hadn’t had a chance to let the community know we would be doing these sort of targeted patrols, so we didn’t want to start dishing out citations without giving everyone a fair chance to be informed of our plan," she said.
McDaniel said the close calls didn't discourage her from participating in future emphasis patrols.
"I was out there with that additional level of alertness, watching carefully with the understanding that a lot of people weren’t going to stop," she said. "If anything, it makes me and our department eager to do more operations like this one to bring as much education and awareness as we can to drivers and pedestrians alike."
McDaniel said she also discussed the situation with other pedestrians during the emphasis patrol.
"They frequently experience the same types of encounters — close calls or having to wait long periods of time before cars will finally stop and allow them to cross," she said. "What we got to see in that hour is what a large number of our residents experience on a daily basis as a part of their normal routine. Our mission is to educate people of the problem that exists and influence a change in behavior, whether that be more cautious drivers or more aware pedestrians or both."
The Chamber of Commerce also plans to post temporary signs in the mile-long Highway 41 corridor in town to educate drivers, and the city is exploring speed display signs that flash how fast motorists are driving as they pass by.
Reducing the speed limit from 35 mph — it is 25 mph in the school zone during school hours — is also being considered, but approval from the Idaho Transportation Department is needed.
According to Spirit Lake Police, Graf, who is involved in the community’s garden club, Tree of Sharing at Christmas to benefit residents in need, and other efforts, was crossing Highway 41 at 2:20 p.m. on Feb. 3 when she was struck by a 2004 Mazda driven by Vicki Kolar, 43, Rathdrum.
Police said Kolar had stopped for Graf when the Mazda was rear-ended by a 2005 Toyota Sienna driven by Tamara Shearer, 32, Blanchard. Police said Shearer was distracted and did not yield to the pedestrian situation ahead. Charges are pending.
Drugs or alcohol do not appear to be a factor in the accident, police said.