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January 29. 2014 7:16PM

Mark Hayward's City Matters: Crossing guards endure rush hour rudeness


 

Richard Hebert stops traffic as students from Bakersville Elementary School cross Elm Street earlier this month. (MARK HAYWARD / UNION LEADER)

I like to think of morning rush hour traffic as a daily flood.

The trickle starts about 6 a.m., a half hour or so after bedside alarms rouse sleepers. They enter their cars, which wash down a quiet residential street, then stream through a crowded city street and eventually flow into a roaring, congested, multi-lane road that gushes cars and buses into the downtown, the Millyard or an interstate entrance ramp.

If this flow can be halted anywhere, it is at the corner of Elm Street and Queen City Avenue. There stand Sandra Wenzel and Richard Hebert, two modern-day Moseses who part the waters long enough for school children to cross and to Bakersville Elementary School.

Armed with hand-held STOP signs and an unforgiving eye, the two crossing guards hold back 10 lanes of traffic. They inconvenience drivers late for work or school, drivers juiced on their third cup of Dunkin,' drivers distracted by the radio morning crew or whatever's coming out of their earbuds.

"The people don't want to stop for lights. They don't obey us," said Wenzel, a 65-year-old great-grandmother who knows many of the children's names and steals a kiss from a mother's baby. She's had the job for four years and earns $13.80 an hour.

"Every day it's bad here, even in the afternoon," Wenzel said.

The intersection is a monster. Queen City Avenue drains most of South Willow Street and its south Manchester neighborhoods. Elm Street traffic comes from the downtown in one direction, Calef Road neighborhoods in the other direction. Traffic counts have nearly 20,000 cars going through the intersection on a given day.

Most are headed toward Interstate 293.

"I've almost been hit crossing my grandson," said Wendy Glidden as she walked to Bakersville one afternoon to pick up the boy. "Cars just fly through, they turn right on red. It's a bad intersection."

Nearly every elementary school has crossing guards at intersections near the school. Bakersville is the only one where two guards direct a single intersection.

Wenzel and Hebert have their system down. They know the 2-minute, 49-second rotation of the traffic light and when the walk light will come on. At that point, they march into traffic with their signs held aloft.

Hebert is flat footed, so he walks with an awkward, seemingly painful gait. Nonetheless, he dutifully marches out into the lanes.

"You let the traffic know you can't move. Does it always work? No," he said. Once the children cross and the walk light turns red, he trudges to his corner. Big trucks and school buses make turns and come close to him.

"It doesn't phase me anymore," he said.

Just last week, Wenzel said she heard an earful from a driver, stuck in an intersection, as she blocked him during a crossing.

The school-hour speed limit is supposed to be 20 mph, but Hebert has given up on that. While Wenzel spoke recently, a pickup gunned it to get through the intersection as the light turned red. That doesn't even bother the crossing guards.

Their biggest concern is right turns on reds. Signs forbid such turns during school hours, but drivers will stop and scoot through the turn.

On afternoons, teachers and City Year volunteers actually stand in the turn lane to prevent the turns.

"We're in the middle of the street with the kids, and they go through," Wenzel said. Police said there's not much they can do. The intersection is wide open, and there are few places for a police cruiser to hide.

"People tend not to break the law when they see us," said Sgt. Andrew Vincent of the police departments Traffic Unit, which oversees crossing guards.

So what do do? Vincent said you could build a bridge or tunnel for the children, but that will never happen. Why not, then, let the crossing guards write tickets?

"I would have a ball," Wenzel said.

Mark Hayward's City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and on UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.


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