By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
The anguish was obvious in his voice as Dr. John Albert spoke of the traffic accident that claimed the life of his beloved stepson, Thomas F. Gibbons Jr., an engineer from Lansdale, Pa., who enjoyed vacationing in Ocean City for years.
“We feel horrible that we lost Tommy,” he said.
Albert has been pleading with Ocean City and Cape May County officials for changes to the busy intersection where the 47-year-old Gibbons was struck and killed while crossing the street with his family over the Memorial Day weekend.
In response, the county’s engineering department has begun overhauling the crosswalks at the corner of Eighth Street and Bay Avenue to make things safer for pedestrians. The county is responsible for making the changes because Bay Avenue is one of its roads.
Already, the southerly crosswalk on Bay Avenue has been eliminated. Cones and barriers now block the way. This was the crosswalk where Gibbons and his wife, Stephanie, were both hit on May 25 while their two teenage daughters, who were trailing behind them, watched in horror. Stephanie Gibbons has been recovering from her injuries, Albert said.
A flashing message sign that has been installed on Eighth Street directs pedestrians to use the northerly crosswalk on Bay Avenue. The northerly crosswalk is out of the path of traffic making left turns from Eighth Street onto Bay Avenue.
Albert said he is satisfied with the changes made so far, but noted that the county plans to make even more safety improvements after the Labor Day weekend.
“I think everything they’ve done at this corner is positive,” he said in an interview.
Albert, a retired periodontist who lives in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., owns a vacation condo at West Eighth Street, overlooking the intersection where Gibbons and his wife were struck.
“It was right outside our door,” Albert recalled of the accident.
In a press release, police said the vehicle was going west on Eighth Street and turned left on Bay Avenue when it hit Gibbons and his wife.
The driver was not immediately identified. An investigation is being conducted by the Police Department’s Traffic Safety Unit, the department’s Detective Bureau and the Fatal Accident Investigation Unit of the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office.
Gibbons, a frequent Ocean City vacationer, was visiting over the Memorial Day weekend.
“In the warmer months, Ocean City, N.J., was always his favorite destination; whether it was the boardwalk, beach or bay, Tom loved it all,” his obituary said.
Shortly after Gibbons’ death, Albert appeared at a City Council meeting and emotionally appealed to the governing body and Mayor Jay Gillian to reconstruct the intersection of Eighth and Bay to prevent more accidents from happening.
He was joined by members of the audience who stood up to state that they had narrowly avoided being struck at the same intersection in close calls over the years.
Choking back tears, Albert called the corner of Eighth and Bay a deceptively tranquil intersection that is really a “kill zone” because of speeding motorists and myriad distractions, including parked cars, the surrounding homes and the Route 52 Causeway bridge a block away.
The mayor and Council members commended Albert for his remarks, pledging to do whatever they could to improve traffic safety. At the same time, they noted that the county is in charge of the intersection.
In a statement posted on the city’s website on Aug. 2, Gillian announced that the county had eliminated the southerly crosswalk at Eighth and Bay and was now directing pedestrians to use the northerly crosswalk.
“I want to thank the county for working with residents and the city to make this modification, minimizing the risk to pedestrians using the intersection,” the mayor said.
Cape May County Engineer Robert Church declined to comment on the changes, saying that the county preferred not to discuss the safety improvements at this time out of respect for the Gibbons family.
“In light of the fatality and out of respect for the family, the County feels it would be more appropriate to not publicize the work that has been completed at this time. The pedestrian movement is obvious to users of the intersection,” Church said in an email.
Albert said he was instrumental in the changes made at Eighth and Bay so far. He is awaiting even more safety improvements that the county has told him will occur after Labor Day.
They may include changes to the sidewalks and the handicap-accessible ramps. Also being considered are “bump-outs” that would allow pedestrians to stand in the parking lanes to get a better view of traffic before they cross the road, Albert said.
Dominick Dougherty, whose house at 1 E. Eighth St. overlooks the intersection of Eighth and Bay, said many drivers use Eighth Street as a shortcut to the entrance of the Route 52 Causeway bridge on Ninth Street.
“It’s a busy intersection,” Dougherty said. “There are always people going fast at the light to turn onto Bay and head to the bridge. People think that by coming this way, it will allow them to get ahead of the other traffic and save them some time when they are on vacation.”
Dougherty would like to see motorists heading to the bridge funneled up the Ninth Street corridor, a wider road that is designed to handle heavier traffic.
He believes that left-hand turns should be eliminated from Eighth Street onto Bay Avenue. He would also like to see right-hand turns eliminated from 10th Street onto Bay. Those traffic restrictions would force more motorists to use Ninth Street to head to the bridge, Dougherty explained.
Albert, meanwhile, said there have simply been too many accidents or close calls at Eighth and Bay and other intersections throughout Ocean City. He believes that the designs for many intersections date to the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
He thinks they should be updated to reflect modern traffic demands – especially during the busy summer tourism season, when the city’s population swells and the roads are crowded with cars, bicyclists and pedestrians.