Greater City Providence

Thoughts on the Councilman Hassett hit and run

Atwells Avenue. Image from Google StreetView

First, this goes without saying, but let’s say it because I’m about to get angry. Our thoughts (and I’m sure for those of us that do so, prayers) are with Councilman Hassett and his family and friends, and we hope for nothing but the speediest and fullest recovery for the Councilman and to see him back at work at City Hall soon.

Now’s the part of the post where I start to get angry. First I’m going to get angry at myself. Pedestrian injuries and fatalities are such a common place occurrence around here, and the section of Atwells where the Councilman was hit is among the most common, that I barely think about it anymore. It is simply part of the landscape. Like changing leaves, or students coming back to town.

The Journal reports:

The accident was the second severe mishap on that part of Atwells in five days.

A week ago, Brittany DeQuattro, whose home address the police withheld, suffered leg fractures and severe head cuts on her 22nd birthday when she got out of a parked car and was struck by the eastbound car of a hit-and-run driver in front of 422 Atwells. DeQuattro was hospitalized for a time and Zienowicz said she is expected to fully recover. The incident remains under investigation.

The scene is near the intersection of Atwells and Marcello Street, where a car driven by an off-duty policeman on a rainy night in December 2005 struck and killed a young woman pedestrian. The policeman was not criminally charged.

In October, Ericka Manzo, 25, was seriously injured near 216 Atwells when she was struck by a car driven by an allegedly drunken man as she crossed the street at about 1 a.m. The man was criminally charged in the hit-and-run accident.

People have been talking for years about the need for safety improvements along Atwells, where the speed limit is 25. After the 2005 fatality, the city did install more speed-limit signs.

That list does not include the elderly gentleman who jumped the sidewalk and slammed into the facade of Siena last Tuesday (thankfully no one on the sidewalk or in the restaurant were hurt).

Photo by Jim Beller

It also does not mention the person who was struck earlier this year prompting then Council-candidate Steven Meresi to get Traffic Engineering to install a crosswalk at the western end of Atwells, not far from where the Councilman was struck.

See what I mean? It happens all the time, one eventually gets outrage fatigue and I’m suffering from a severe case of it. I’m tired of being tired of hearing about people being run down in the streets and now I’m angry.

I’m also angry at the rest of the media. Of course the reaction to a City Councilor being struck by a car will be different than a private citizen as far as the media is concerned. More people know the Councilor, so it is a bigger story, we all know what a City Councilor is even if we don’t know the specific person. So it is a big story, OK. But look back up at that list from the Journal, someone in the newsroom could have picked up on that years ago and made a bigger deal of it.

I’m also angry with the City Council and the Mayor. The Journal goes on to write:

Lombardi said he asked Mayor David N. Cicilline’s staff to spend federal aid under the Obama economic stimulus bill on traffic-calming measures on Atwells but was told that the work was “not shovel-ready” and did not qualify. Lombardi insisted that preparation had been made and it did qualify.

“Obviously, [traffic] enforcement would be nice there, too,” he said. “People pick up speed. It’s difficult to see at night.”

It is no secret that the Mayor and Lombardi are not exactly friends. Somehow Steven Meresi, who at that point was just a regular citizen, got Traffic Engineering to install a crosswalk within days of someone else being struck, but Lombardi has not been able to get any serious action in decades in office. Was Cicilline playing politics with people’s lives? Was Lombardi not trying hard enough to rectify a deadly situation? I’ll let you dear reader be the judge.

I’m also angry with Traffic Engineering. The Councilor and the Mayor should not even have had the opportunity to bicker over this issue, Traffic Engineering should have identified the problem (or PPD should have identified it for them), and worked up a solution. If not to engineer roadways so that people are not struck down on a regular basis, then what is Traffic Engineering for? I will be asking the next Mayor to look into Traffic Engineering, determine what their function should be, and urge him to work to make them more effective.

I’m also angry at our culture. Atwells Avenue is an entertainment district, and by entertainment I mean eating and drinking. This is great, I love eating and I love drinking. But in our society the majority of people get in their cars and drive to eating and drinking establishments and Atwells is no different. I’ll bet a box of donuts that the person who hit the Councilman was drunk. And if that is the case, I blame her 100% for being drunk and reckless. This was no accident, the perpetrator made a conscious decision to get in her car and drive to Atwells to drink.

However, what choice did she really have? Our entire nation is built upon reliance on the automobile. She could have taken the bus maybe? Well yes, except the only bus serving Atwells is the green line trolley and that stops running at 8:50pm, the incident in question happened after 9pm.

She could have walked? Well yes, but I actually think, sad as it is to say, one is safer driving drunk than one is walking on Atwells. How many people have died on Atwells and what were they doing? Walking.

A combination of the structure of our physical environment, and a lack of enforcement, leads to a culture where it is OK to drive drunk. Really, we have few options.

And one more, I’m angry at the Providence Police. Enforcement of drunk driving in Providence is nil. Actions against establishments on the Hill for over-serving are nil (if your clientele is largely black or Hispanic, then you might get some enforcement, white and suburban, not so much). The entire coddamn police force responded when Councilman Hassett was hit, too little too late guys!

Now let us move from the part of the post in which I am angry into the part of the post where I try to outline what I think are some solutions (warning, I’m likely to still be angry).

So how do we address a problem like pedestrians being struck down by motor vehicles. The solutions I’m hearing from officials and from places like comments on Facebook and ProJo are well intentioned, but will not be helpful.

Speed limit signs. The speed limit on Atwells is 25mph. Councilman Lombardi already got speed limit signs put up after a prior fatality some years ago, they obviously did not work. Here’s the thing, do we think drunks are reading speed limit signs as the weave and speed down the Avenue? No, we don’t.

Better Lighting. This suggestion would be helpful and is needed, but will not do a whole lot to slow down drunk speeders. It will help the hapless pedestrian better see what is coming down the road at them, and may alert some drivers of people moving along and across the road. But the random drunk is not going to be deterred by more light alone.

Those signs by the side of the road that tell you how fast you are going. One is up now near where the Councilman was hit. Do you know what those do? Encourage inebriated assholes to see how high they can get the reader to go.

Speed Bumps. Now we’re starting to get somewhere. What is needed is something to physically slow cars down. Regardless of what the speed limit is, or how many signs you put up reminding people of that limit, if a road is built for high speed, people will drive fast on it.

The western end of Atwells is wide and smooth, with no stop signs or traffic lights (see the image at the top of the post). It feels like, and in a way it is true that, the entertainment district on Atwells ends round about the Walgreens, just east of where the Coucilman, and so many other people, were struck. There’s less people on the sidewalks from that point on, there are fewer people trying to cross the street, there’s not a valet stand every 10 yards anymore, traffic gets lighter, it is dark. Every indication to the driver is, “you can start driving faster now.”

But you can’t, the speed limit is still 25 and there are still people out and about, and it is still a city street. So we need to give drivers visual cues (not just signs) that they need to slow down, and physical means to ensure they do.

A speed bump is probably wrong, but raised crosswalks would be a good investment. Think of Smith Street behind the State House, but not as severe (that raised crosswalk there is really built all wrong, and makes everyone in the state now hate the concept). At every street that intersects with Atwells, there should be a standard crosswalk painted on the road at least, preferably zebra striped ones for greater visibility. At intersections that have higher pedestrian traffic, rather evenly spaced along the Avenue, there should be raised crosswalks. These force cars to slow to mount them, and give pedestrians greater visibility.

Another thing we need is curb extensions. There are a number of things the extensions achieve. First, they reduce the width of the street making drivers feel like they need to move slower. Second, they reduce the amount of space a pedestrian has to cross, they are not crossing from curb to curb, they are now crossing from extended curb to extended curb, a much smaller gap. Third, they give more visibility for the pedestrian and of the pedestrian. A pedestrian does not have to look from the far edge of the street beyond parked cars to try to make out what is happening in the street before they cross, the extension puts them right on the edge of the travel lane so they can see what is happening and if it is safe. Also, the driver can see the pedestrian standing on the extension and not have them be a surprise coming out from behind a parked car, or from the far edge of the street.

What we need is a Complete Streets redesign of Atwells Avenue and many of our other streets. To make our streets safe and efficient not just for automobiles, but also for pedestrians and cyclists.

We need enforcement. The police know there is lots of drinking and lots of nefarious activity on the Hill. They should be visibly active on the street, especially on weekends. On foot, on bikes, on horseback, in patrol cars (hell throw some helicopters in the sky), just be out there. People behave in the presence of law enforcement. They don’t need to make a hundred arrests, they just need to be there.

Some arrests would be helpful though. People now feel like they can speed into Providence from the suburbs to make last call. Why is this an acceptable practice? The Warwick and Johnston drunks should stay in Warwick and Johnston. Some arrests will let these people know that we do not accept them coming into our city late at night drunk.

We need political leadership. We have a new mayor getting elected tomorrow and a largely new City Council. Let’s start these people off on the right foot by letting them know that we are tired of people being hit by cars. We want them to be leaders and to do something about it. The physical interventions will cost money, go out and get us some damn money. The new Mayor is in charge of the police force. Esserman can stay or go, but the new Mayor needs to make it clear that enforcement in this area is a top priority.

Lastly, we all need to get over our outrage fatigue. We can’t wait until there is a notable injury or death to express our outrage, we need to hold those who are accountable accountable and continue to hold them accountable.

Later this week I will share my thoughts on how the rebuilding of Dean Street has been a failure from a Complete Streets perspective and discuss why I think Dean and Atwells may be the next hot spot for severe pedestrian injuries and fatalities.

Jef Nickerson

Jef is Greater City Providence's co-founder, editor, and publisher. He grew up on Cape Cod and lived in Boston; Portland, Maine; and New York before settling in Providence. In addition to urbanism, Jef is interested in art, design, and ice cream. Please feel free to contact Jef if you have any question or comments about Greater City Providence.


  • The “complete street” idea is gaining traction around the country, and the whole Atwells Avenue could use a look towards those goals of increased safety, slower and more deliberate driving, as well as better on/off access for the trolleys. Pawtucket is doing a similar Downtown study and is considering “complete street” ideas for Main Street Downtown. It’s about time Providence thought of it, too.

  • When the young woman was hit in 2005 and killed on Christmas, a group of us from the neighborhood and businesses met with traffic engineering and we were told there was really nothing to be done, that crosswalks don’t make people safer and that basically they were throwing up their hands and shrugging. It was a frustrating meeting, to say the least.

    I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now. All around the world people are NOT getting hit by cars, and there must be some secret that the administration is not privy to.

    There’s one of those “you’re going this speed” things on a street I travel frequently down here in VA. Everyone slows right down. While not a permanent solution, I think a series of short and long term fixes are in order for that stretch of Atwells Avenue. I would also suggest that planting some trees down there to make the road seem more narrow would probably help as well. You drive up that hill by the church and it looks like this wide open expanse of super highway.

    Let’s make it a more urban street and let’s hope we don’t have to wait til January to start dealing with it…

  • The easiest, cheapest change is paint narrow lanes. They want people to drive 25 mph (I say 20 is plenty) but they paint 11 – 12 foot lanes so it looks like a highway. Maybe no paint at all would be safer. Better to have the drunks poking along saying “Damn I can’t even see the edge of the road” than “Hey, I’m between those bright lines – I’m cool!”

  • People are getting hit by cars frequently in a lot of places, though Virginia could be more of an exception. It’s really hard to believe that Boston would be significantly safer than Providence. In New York pedestrian accidents with cars is a big problem citywide. There are many deaths.

    The northwest corner of Union Square has one of the most deadly intersections in the city. Roughly a month ago the city narrowed East 17th Street from four lanes in two directions to a single one-way lane barricaded on each side by large planters and granite blocks and cars still speed though the intersection as if they’re trying to hit people. On the other hand, pedestrians now feel more confident, if not cocky, with the reduced roadway and consistently walk through the crosswalks when they don’t have the right-of-way, turning the intersection into a dangerous game of chicken.

    Speed bumps, changes in the street surface, and pinching down lane widths periodically might be the only way to slow vehicles.

  • I can’t help but to be outraged! I have felt from day one that with the sidewalks filled with people when my daughter was hit and traffic cams all over Federal Hill it should not have been to differ cult to find the vehicle that hit her. But I would like to add that from the beginning we reached out for help and support and hope that this person could be found. Our only results were being told not to be hopeful because they didn’t have a plate # and “this sort of thing happens all the time” My family and I are the ones who went to the accident scene to talk to residents and patrons who were there when it happened. My daughters friends and co workers went to channel 12 news themselves and started a petition to have speed bumps put there. It is clear that my daughter did not receive the same treatment as Councilman Hassett under the same circumstances. Either did the other innocent pedestrians who were hit there. My daughter is a Sgt. in the Army reserves, Councilman Hassett is an advocate and public figure, they are both people, these hit and runs should have BOTH been investigated in at least somewhat the same protocol! How would anyone feel if it were them or one of their loved ones.

  • Last Saturday Oct 24th my daughters 22nd birthday she was struck by a hit and run driver at the same location as councilman Hassett. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the councilman and his family and our best wishes for a quick and comfortable recovery. Atwells Avenue has been closed today, there are crime scene investigators and a accident reconstruction team on the scene. It seems as if everything that can be done is being done to ensure the person who ran the Councilman down will be brought to Justice. The story is on all the news stations and the description of the vehicle and pleas for help finding the driver have been released to the public. The PPD is asking for this driver to turn them self in. It is being aired on all the news stations. Please don’t get me wrong I would like to see the person who hit Councilman Hassett apprehended just as badly as anyone else. I would just like to understand why my daughter’s case is not being handled quite the same way under the same circumstances. There were no crime investigators or re constructors! We have still not even been able to pick up a police report to see what has been officially reported! And it would have not even been on the news at all if my daughter’s friends and co workers hadn’t gone to channel 12 themselves! I hope they find the person who did this to Councilman hassett but is anything at all going to be done to try to find the person who left my daughter in critical condition and didn’t even have the decency to stop?

  • Dina, thank you for sharing your story about your daughter. I had a friend who was hit by a drunk driver years ago in Boston. The treatment of the assailant was exacerbating for us, the victim’s friends and family. At one point the trial was delayed to not interfere with the assailant’s school schedule.

    I suggest letting other family and friends focus on the assailant and the police reports and such so you can focus on your daughter. But please, if you have details about the car, please let us know, and we will post in on the front page of the site here to see if any of our readers have any information.

    I hope for all the best for you and your daughter.

  • As an aside, I fervently hope that whatever ‘core connector’ system we eventually have in place runs at least until 1am on weekends.

  • Another problem with that end of Atwells is that in addition to behaving more like a high speed road it is also less dense and less obviously populated than the upper end of Atwells. For drivers (drunk or other) headed down towards Eagle Sq. it’s a relief to get to the other end of the fray and immediately pick up speed thinking they are “in the clear.” I think that a raised crosswalk in is a good start here. Curb extensions might pose a “sudden” unsafe obstacle for cyclists, but the classic bump-out/ trees combo could slow things sufficiently. Providence seems to have a marked lack of traffic enforcement. I have more faith in re-evaluated infrastructure than the PPD getting on it.

  • The sidewalks were full of by standers the night my daughter was hit. The last thing she can remember before she flew into the air was admiring the costumes and make up of a group patrons leaving Lilly’s. As she was looking at them, she was hit. They were all standing right there. Maybe a small article asking for one of the many by standers to come forward would be very helpful. It may seem hard for you to believe but there were no crime scene investigators when my daughter was hit. No questions were asked and no pleas for the driver to come forward were made as in the case of Councilman Hassett. If that had happened than the driver who hit my daughter may have been caught. It appears the councilman is stable now, thank the lord, our thoughts and prayers are with him

  • The costumes my daughter was admiring were a group, all dressed as zombies, leaving Lilly’s at closing time on Saturday Oct 24th the vehicle that hit her is said to be a silver Nissan. This car is thought to have wind shield damage. Not much more to go on. Contact me via face book search Dina Romano Any information would be greatly appreciated!

  • It’s really sad that it took a councilman to get hit before any attention was paid to the problems on Atwells. I see a few issues here. The first is the speeding, which is bad everywhere, but Atwells is a narrow street for the amount of traffic it handles (especially when compared to the much wider Broadway). Another issue is the parking and valet situation. Allowing every restaurant to block off a piece of the curb for a valet stop makes people crazy. The city should regulate that a bit and force the restaurants to use only a couple spots for valet. I think I remember there being a law that prohibits parking within 20 or 30 feet of the corner (I don’t remember which). For some reason Atwells is immune to that law with people parking right up to the corner. This makes it nearly impossible to see traffic coming when trying to pull out of a side street. Finally, there’s the pedestrian traffic. I understand the desire for the restaurants to have outdoor seating. It’s desired by diners in the summer and it increases the number of tables allowing the restaurant to pull in more cash. The problem is the restaurants treat the sidewalk as if they own it, as if it’s part of their dining room. This leaves pedestrians with almost no choice but to walk in the street to avoid each other and the tables that take up the entire sidewalk. This isn’t a problem on a street like Broadway where the sidewalks are much wider.

    I’d like to see at least a good portion of Atwells turned into a pedestrian zone of sorts. Add signage (not that signage helps, but it’s there) that informs drivers of pedestrians. Add crosswalks. The only ones I know of are at Dean and DePasquale (I’m ignoring the one by the arch, because there aren’t as many pedestrians there). Add speed bumps. While they’ll be annoying during the times that no one is out and about (earlier in the morning on Saturdays and Sundays), they’ll help with the speeders. Enforce the no parking within ____ feet of the corner. This will suck on Atwells because of all the small side streets, but it will help pedestrians be seen by drivers and see oncoming traffic. It will also help drivers on those side streets see any oncoming traffic. Finally, how about better police presence or something like the DID for Federal Hill?

  • Oh, and those “you’re going this speed” things don’t do a whole lot. If anything, they make people want to see how fast they can go.

    While I’m not a fan of the police state, how about some speed cameras like London has? I can’t see them everywhere, but on some of the more dense streets, they might be helpful (downtown, Atwells, Thayer, etc).

    And one last thing… the treatment of pedestrians in this city is atrocious. I will start to walk out into a crosswalk on Smith St and people will drive into the other lane to avoid me because they refuse to stop.

  • Its been how many days since this post was posted {22} and the cross walk at Dean and Atwells is STILL not painted… to make matters worse, since it gets dark at like 4:30 now, there are three clusters of street lights at that corner THAT ARE NOT TURNED ON! Either all the bulbs are out, or the construction crew turned them off, or whatever… either way, it is a DANGEROUS situation and they are begging for another pedestrian accident unless they fix it really, really soon.

  • Yup, that is exactly the situation. I’ve taken to walking down to Bond Street and crossing there as the Dean/Atwells Interchange has become far too dangerous since they rebuilt it.

  • Ian Donnis reports at WRNI that Councilman Hassett is expected to be at City Hall tomorrow to be sworn in and vote for Council President.

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