By Joy Bratcher
On Jan. 7, citizens of downtown Athens saw a new pilot program take affect on the street of Prince Avenue. The six-month program focuses on the crosswalk located at Newton Street and Pope Street and places orange flags at each side of the crossing. The flags are to make pedestrians more visible as they cross the street.
“In a few months we are going to do an after study of the success of the flags,” Traffic Engineer Steve Decker said. We will be looking for increased compliance with motorist.”
Kelsey Butler is a student at the University of Georgia and lives near downtown Athens. She describes herself as someone who enjoys walking around downtown as much as she drives through it to go to her hometown. As she crosses Prince Street, she admits she feels silly waving the flags so drivers will supposedly “see her better.”
Butler said that she has seen more close calls in pedestrian accidents than she has cared for especially on the infamous avenue. Yet, she is not sure if the flags will be successful.
“As a pedestrian, I can see the benefit of the flags,” Butler said. “Yet, as a motorists, it is very distracting. I could see how more accidents could be caused by motorists staring at the flags without paying attention to the person carrying the flag.”
Every five years, the Traffic Safety Research and Evaluation Group examines Athens roads to tally up the number of pedestrian and cyclist accidents due to being struck by motorists. In the most recent study released in 2012, one street stood out to researchers- Prince Avenue.
According to the report, while bike crashes are down 46% from the previous five year span complied between years 2003 and 2007, pedestrian crashes are up 160%.
Cities as far as Washington have seen success stories from the new program, but the idea of whether or not this statement is accurate is still being debated in larger cities across the country that carry a high number of pedestrians.
Salt Lake City has been using the flags since 2000. It’s city website states that due to the success of the program, in 2001 the city had to create an Adopt-a-Crosswalk program opening the doors for businesses and individuals to maintain crosswalk flag cites for little or no cost. As of 2013, more than 200 crosswalks were adopted.
Even with the program trying to help pedestrians, some see them as a joke to pull on one another. Looking in the flag pit, one may see a United States Flag, rebel flag, German flag, or Georgia Bulldog flag instead of the orange flags
According to an online article on the Athens Banner Herald website, the cost of replacing each flag costs the city $2. <http://onlineathens.com/local-news/2015-01-12/prince-avenue-pedestrian-flags-get-mixed-reviews>
Decker is quoted in the article saying, “the occasional loss of a flag would be a small price to pay if the program is effective in improving pedestrian safety.”
When using the flags, pedestrians are not to solely rely on carrying their flag. “It’s just an enhancement” for the crosswalks, and “not a cure-all” for pedestrian safety, Decker said in the article. <http://onlineathens.com/local-news/2015-01-06/pedestrian-crosswalk-flags-be-tried-prince-avenue>
In June, the city will examine Prince Avenue to see if statics have improved since the start of the project.
“I’m not sure what the results will be from this,” Butler said. “If it works to help make us safer, then it won’t matter any cost or problem it could cause. Even if it saves one life, it will be worth it.”
By Evelyn Andrews
“It was hard to get a ride with Uber when they first came to Athens, but now it’s easier and cheaper than a taxi normally,” said Sydney Browning, who has ridden with the service several times.
Affordability and the easiness of getting a ride with Uber is often cited as a reason people choose the service over traditional taxis, but Uber’s lack of government oversight and background checks has led to some people to question the safeness of using them.
“I did not know that Uber doesn’t have some requirements that taxi drivers have and I do feel a little more worried getting a ride with them now,” Browning, a student at the University of Georgia, said.
Uber, a ride-sharing service, has been expanding across the globe since 2012 and debuted in Athens in August 2014. Uber, a part of the sharing economy such as Airbnb and bike rental services, operates in 55 countries and over 200 cities as of December 2014.
Uber has not been immune to mishaps, including being banned from India after allegations of rape and surge pricing during the hostage crisis in Sydney, Australia. Several taxi cab companies worldwide have sued Uber on the basis that they do not follow regulations. Athens Uber operations also have not been immune to these types of controversies, but no lawsuits have been filed.
“The real question should be is, ‘is it safe?’” said Ted Ledall, a dispatcher for United Taxi Cab in Athens, Georgia. “To be an Uber driver, there are no qualifications.”
Several taxi cab owners and drivers from Atlanta sued the ride-sharing service in September 2014, claiming Uber is operating a taxi service without a license. Many Athens taxi cab owners and drivers agree with their decision and are supporting them, Ledall said.
“We support them 110 percent,” he said.
But taxi companies in Athens are not planning their own lawsuit. Instead, they are relying on Mayor Nancy Denson.
“Everything is on the mayor’s table rights now,” Ledall said.
He said Mayor Denson should require all Uber drivers in Athens to adhere to the same regulation that taxi companies are required to follow. Athens ordinances require taxi cab drivers to receive a background check through the police department and to have a valid driver’s license with no points acquired in order to be issued a taxi license drivers are required to have.
“We check our drivers so much, there is no felonies, nothing in their background,” Ledall said.
However, one in five taxi drivers in Athens have accumulated a number of traffic or other violations within the last 10 years, according to The Red & Black.
No ordinances exist in Athens-Clarke County or state laws in Georgia that stipulate requirements for Uber, but city officials, according to The Red & Black, are reviewing ordinances that could be passed.
Hasan Ahmed, an Athens Uber driver, said the company does have stringent requirements for drivers. They do an internal background check, making sure the drivers have a valid license with a clean record.
“I don’t think you could make the argument that Uber is any less safe than taxis,” Ahmed said.
But some law makers argue that Uber still needs official government regulations, including Rep. Alan Powell (R-Hartwell) who is trying to pass legislation requiring Uber drivers to pass a government background check.
The government also requires taxi drivers to pass a drug test in order to obtain a license. Uber does not make drivers pass these tests, which Browning said is worrying.
Uber drivers are also required to have a car that is less than 10 years old, Ahmed said. Many people have said they feel safer riding with an Uber driver for that reason. Athens’ taxis are often in bad condition, older and poorly maintained, Browning said.
“I have ridden in a few taxis that do not even working gauges for speed and gas before,” she said.
Ledall deflected that argument by arguing that taxis still have more regulation than Uber. Additionally, Uber price gauges riders and charges them exorbitant prices for vomiting in the car, neither of which taxis do, Ledall said.
However, taxis in Athens do not have meters that measure the distant driven and assign a price for the riders. This makes the price taxis drivers tell riders seem arbitrary, Browning said.
No taxi drivers have harassed Ahmed, but he has been stopped by police several times, he said. However, he does not fault the officers, but rather the lack of awareness about the laws guiding Uber.
“Everything is so new and no one really knows what the rules are so sometimes the police just get confused,” Ahmed said.
According to an Athens-Clarke County police report, an Uber driver was stopped by a police officer on Jan. 9 and told to finish the ride and not take any more riders because Uber is not a licensed taxi.
Athens Uber operations has acquired several more drivers since beginning in the city in 2014 and will remain a competitive force against taxis, Ahmed said.
“I think everyone has noticed that they are many more Uber drivers,” Ahmed said.
The trigger is pulled and the gun jerks back. The shell flies out. The bullet travels down the range almost too fast to be seen. The only evidence of the bullet’s presence, a Bang! The sound echoes off the cement walls and a single bullet hole appears straight through the target—an outline of a human profile.
Daniel Grass, a senior at the University of Georgia, shows off his target image. Ten bullet holes gape in the paper target—all through the head.
Grass is confident in his shooting ability and plans to purchase a gun when he has enough money. He said he would not feel any more or less safe carrying a gun with him on campus—but that is exactly what he would be able to do if the proposed legislation House Bill 512 were to pass through the senate.
House Bill 512, which passed through the Georgia House in a 117-56 vote this month, is currently being reviewed by the Senate. HB 512, also known as the Safe Carry Protection Act, amends current legislation to lift restrictions on where guns can be carried. If passed this bill would allow concealed weapons on college campuses—as well as in places of worship, bars and unsecured government buildings.
Athens House Representatives were split on their vote for HB 512. Democratic Representative Spencer Frye voted against the bill while Republican Representative Regina Quick voted in favor. As reflected by the conflicting views of the two representatives, the Athens community has a variety of opinions on HB 512.
HB 512 would affect public institutions differently than private ones. Places of worship and bars, because they are private property rights, would still be allowed to decide whether or not to allow weapons in their establishment. Public universities, however, are considered government institutions and would be required to permit guns on certain areas of their campus.
The University of Georgia being a public institution would be directly impact by the passing of the Safe Carry Protection Act.
University Police Chief Jimmy Williamson opposes HB 512, particularly legislation that would allow for guns to be carried on college campuses. “We like where the current law is,” said Williamson. “I have concerns [about HB512] from a safety standpoint.”
Williamson said that he believed the law would cause a number of issues and would make the job of police officers more difficult. He noted his concern about the influence guns would have on instances of intimidation or bullying on campus. Williamson said the presence of more guns in innocent people’s hands would complicate the job of police officers when in came to responding to active shooters. “It would be hard for the police responding to know who the good guy and who the bad guy is,” said Williamson.
On the other side of the issue Bobby Tribble an employee at Franklin Gun Shop in Athens, said
“If you are a law abiding person you can carry a gun anywhere you want to and as long as you don’t show off with it and do something illegal or unless you have to use the gun nobody is going to know you have it anyway.”
Tribble said he did not believe that passing or removing restrictions on where gun owners could carry weapons would change the number of people carrying concealed weapons in these areas. “Only law abiding people obey laws so passing more laws is not going to have any effect.”
The University Union hosted a debate on gun control open to students, faculty and athens locals. Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owner Association and Kathryn Grant of the non-profit organization Gun Free Kids, both presented their views on the issue guns on campus.
Grant, who is part of the Keep Guns Off Campus Resolutions, said in opposition to HB 512, “The assertion that arming students and teachers in keeping the campus community safe lies at the heart of this debate, but is a rationale seen by many as fundamentally flawed.” Grant further encouraged those making decisions on this bill to listen to experts on the issue that have said putting guns on campus will not make it a safer environment.
Feldman a prominent lobbyist for gun rights refuted Grant. Feldman said that in order to discuss the issue of gun control people must get away form the emotions in the issue.
“[If] I am carrying that gun legally, am I somehow, when I cross over onto school property, going to become a vicious killer? I think not,” said Feldman. The concern is not where guns can be carried. The important issue is who is carrying a gun.
Feldman said, removing gun restrictions would not change the number of dangerous people who could carry a gun on campus—rather it would increase the number of law-abiding citizens who would have a gun and ability to defend themselves.
But do students or faculty feel they would be safer if guns were allowed on campus? University Georgia System Chancellor Hank Huckaby does not think so.
“In my position I believe strongly that allowing our students to carry weapons on our campuses will not increase their personal safety but instead reduce it,” said Huckaby, in a statement before the Georgia legislative committee. Huckaby is supported by the 31 other University System of Georgia’s presidents in his opposition of HB 512.
Lucas Smith a freshman at the University of Georgia said he is against HB 512. “There are merits to both arguments, but I would personally want to see no guns on campus,” said Smith. While Smith said he supports the second amendment, he feels that he pays money to attend the University and should have a say in how safe he feels on campus.
Back at the shooting range, Grass fired over 17 rounds through his target practicing his precision and aim. “I agree with allowing guns in more places,” said Grass. “I think the biggest misconception about gun control is that, the more regulation you put on gun is going to keep them out of the wrong hands.”
Grass believes that current legislation restricting gun carrying on campus is not going to stop someone who wants to bring a gun on campus from doing so. By allowing guns on campus Grass said he did not feel the number of students carrying guns would drastically increase.
“There might be a small percent of student who carry [guns] and they are going to be the responsible ones who wouldn’t want to shot me anyways. The only thing that [allowing guns on campus] could do it maybe prevent a mass shooting or something,” said Grass.
While the Safe Carry Protection Act remains under review in the Georgia Senate, the Athens and University community can contact Athens’ State Senator Bill Cowsert to voice their opinion on House Bill 512.
Danielle Gibson, 33, has lived in many places throughout her life. From apartments to townhouses to owning her own house, Gibson has moved from one neighborhood to the next.
In 2008, Gibson moved to Athens, Ga, along with her husband and two-year-old daughter. However, the move this time was different. It wasn’t about finding the perfect home but about the safety of her child from neighborhood offenders.
Gibson isn’t alone with her concerns of safety; many families throughout the country feel the same. According to the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office, more than half of rape/sexual assault incidents happen within a mile of the victim’s home. The sheriff’s department also estimates that “80% of all addresses have at least one offender within a mile of an address.”
So what exactly is Athens doing to keep their community safe? Are sexual offenders and predators complying with the rules that permit them to reside in certain locations, such as downtown?
- Cpl. Muriel Price from the Clarke County Sheriff’s department verifies that there are approximately 100 active sex offenders living in Athens-Clarke County.
- There is only one sex offender in Athens that is classified as a predator.
- Regarding places where sex offenders can reside, the registry states that offenders and predators cannot live within 1,000 feet of any child-care facility, school, church, or an area where minors congregate.
There is a difference between being a sexual offender and a sexual predator. The Georgia Sex Offender registry states that a “sexual offender means any individual who has been convicted of a criminal offense against a victim who is a minor or any dangerous sexual offense,” while a “sexual predator” is someone who is dangerous and who was “designated as a sexually violent predator between July 1, 1996, and June 30, 2006 or A person who is determined by the Sexual Offender Registration Review Board to be at risk of perpetrating any future dangerous sexual offense.”
The sheriff’s office states that there is no such thing as a “typical” sex offender; nevertheless, they all are likely to be manipulative, deceiving, and secretive. Sex offenders come from all backgrounds, ages, income levels, and professions.
Citizens are allowed to search through the Sexual Offender Registry online to find more information about offenders living in their area. The registry gives the address to where the offender currently resides, what crime they committed, whether or not they are incarcerated, and most importantly, it shows the residence verification date.
“We use two mapping systems to determine distances,” stated Capt. Jimps Cole of the Clark County Sherriff’s Department. “One is OffenderWatch, which is the one on our website and the other is a county owned system.”
OffenderWatch allows neighbors to know how close an offender lives to them. For example, the First United Methodist Church located downtown shows that there are 12 offenders living within a two-mile radius of the church. The radius can be changed from two miles to 0.25 miles. At 0.25 miles or 1,320 feet, there are no offenders living in a close proximity to the church. Different addresses can be placed into the system and according to the program, there are currently no offenders in Athens violating the residential rule.
The sheriff’s department also uses a GPS device that is used as a confirmation if the distance of the offender is close to 1,000 feet.
If offenders move and there is a change of address, the State of Georgia requires offenders to register through the sheriff’s office. However, if offenders do not move and there is no change of address, they are still required to register once a year.
There is only one sex predator in Athens-Clarke County. Stanley Adams, 54, was convicted in 2002 for child molestation. Sexual predators must register more than once a year to the sheriff’s office. Adams is currently in jail.
The sheriffs of Athens-Clarke County keep a close eye on offenders. At random times during the year, they make unannounced checks on each registered offender. This is to verify the information that the offender had given them at the time of registration.
“If we observe a violation, we submit an application to the court for an arrest warrant on the violator…we then arrest the offender and take them to jail,” Cole added.
This program gives community members a sense of safety.
“We are lucky to have a community program such as OffenderWatch to monitor who moves in around our neighborhoods. With another child on the way, it gives me a peace of mind,” Gibson said.