Nita Stout of York, Pennsylvania, was known in some parts of Lewisberry as “the walker.”
It was what the Bangladeshi mother of four boys liked to do, usually in the mornings. She did it for exercise and as a way to get outside. And on a Saturday morning in February, despite following the rules of the road, Stout died doing just that.
A driver struck her about a mile from her home. Her death left her family in shock.
It also meant that just two months into 2016, more pedestrians in York County had been struck and killed by vehicles than in all of 2015.
Stout’s morning walk followed a three-mile route that took her down Nauvoo Road where she and her family lived, a curvy two-way street that cuts diagonally between Route 114 and Lewisberry Road.
Trisha Seilhamer, a 30-year-old nurse’s aide at Harrisburg Hospital, rents a home up the street from the Stout family on Nauvoo Road.
Around 7 a.m. on Feb. 20, Seilhamer and Stout’s paths crossed.
Seilhamer was driving home from her overnight shift when her car veered off Lewisberry Road and struck Stout.
“I honestly never saw her,” Seilhamer said recently. “I didn’t see anything until the impact happened.”
Seilhamer has worked the night shift for the last two years and also takes classes at Harrisburg Area Community College. She said she never noticed Stout walk on Nauvoo Road, noting that she keeps an odd schedule.
Seilhamer, who wasn’t injured, said she wasn’t texting or otherwise distracted.
She struggled in school in the days after the crash.
“It’s terrible,” Seilhamer said. She said she knows how the Stout family feels — her cousin, Cori Sisti, died when a car she was in crossed over train tracks in York Haven and was struck by a passing train. “There’s no words.”
Since Stout’s death, another pedestrian, Richard Allen Zech Jr., 45, was struck and killed by a vehicle in Windsor Township. Police say he was walking to an appointment.
The spate is alarming to some local officials, one of whom says these deaths have been on the rise over the last few years. The seven deaths in York County already this year are an increase from four during all of 2015.
“It’s a tough issue,” said Wayne Harper, director of the York County Center for Traffic Safety, which serves a wider region including Adams, Lebanon and Lancaster counties. “There are so many different reasons that pedestrians are hit and killed.”
His office analyzes vehicle crash data — for about 5,000 crashes a year in York County — to pinpoint where different types of crashes are happening.
The ultimate goal would be no pedestrian fatalities, he said. But with that lofty goal, the center, along with other local organizations such as the Healthy York County Coalition, educate the community about driver and pedestrian safety.
“The bottom line is we have had, over the past year or two, a higher number of pedestrians killed in York County,” Harper said.
The Feb. 20 incident on Lewisberry Road offers a look at that difficulty Harper spoke about.
Stout was familiar with the roads. She would walk against traffic and wear an orange sweatshirt, her husband Kevin said. She stepped onto the grass when cars passed.
The morning she died, she chose to start her walk on Lewisberry Road, known locally as “space highway” for its wider-than-usual shoulder.
There was still snow on the ground.
“It’s tragic,” Kevin said. “She went to a place we thought was safer.”
Variables in these deaths can range from whether a person was walking along a road or crossing to another side, Harper said. In some cases, a person might not have had bright enough clothing. Maybe a driver didn’t look for pedestrians crossing at an intersection.
Other general factors include increased traffic and a growing use of cellphones among walkers and drivers, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, which has said that technology plays a part in distracted driving today.
Nita Stout died the instant the car hit her.
Seilhamer pulled over her 2012 Chevrolet Cruz and called 911. An off-duty state trooper drove by and stopped, too. He took the phone from Seilhamer and spoke with 911 dispatchers because she was so hysterical she couldn’t remember the name of the road she was on.
“I was completely alert,” she said of driving home that morning. “Maybe I glanced off for a second.”
Since then, she has been “extremely cooperative” during the Fairview Township Police investigation into the crash, Chief Jason Loper said.
In March, the department completed its investigation and turned its findings over to the York County District Attorney’s Office.
“We’re just waiting to hear what, if anything, will be done,” he said.
In general, such investigations include a crash reconstruction at the scene. Most modern cars have computers that show how fast they were going or if there were mechanical issues at the time of the crash, Loper said.
Forensic analysis of a cellphone can show if someone was texting at the time.
Analysis of Seilhamer’s car revealed no mechanical issues that would have contributed to the crash, Loper said.
The district attorney’s office said the case remains under investigation and review.
Other pedestrian fatalities this year also remain under investigation. William Seitz, 67, for example, was found dead on North Pershing Avenue on Jan. 3. A vehicle struck him and left the scene. There have been no arrests and the investigation has recently hit a brick wall, York City Police Lt. Troy Bankert said.
The Healthy York County Coalition recently launched an initiative called York County Walks to promote the health benefits of walking. It will also work on improving the walkability of York County roads.
“We do not have a very safe, walkable community in York County,” said Cori Strathmeyer, director of healthy living with YMCA of York and York County and chairperson of Eat Play Breathe York, a health initiative in the city of York.
Last year, irony quite literally struck Strathmeyer.
She was leaving a meeting about pedestrian and bike safety and crossing a crosswalk when a driver making a right turn struck her near city hall. That driver was distracted from another vehicle who ran a red light.
She was propelled into the air and rolled off the car’s windshield. She wrote about the experience in a recent blog post.
“It was scary. It was so fast,” she said. “I was obviously startled at first and then just, `are you kidding me?”‘
The city of York has a “complete streets” policy, meaning all streets are accessible by all modes of transportation including bicycle and car.
The challenge, Strathmeyer said, is bringing that policy to the rest of York County where winding roads often cut through wide-open swaths of farmland and offer narrow shoulders.
“In the county, there are just not sidewalks,” Strathmeyer said. “So you have people walking on unsafe roadways because that’s the only opportunity to connect to where they live or walk to the grocery store.”
Strathmeyer says it comes down to a “shared responsibility.”
“Unfortunately, I think most people who drive vehicles think that, `I’m driving and you’re going to get out of the way,”‘ she said. “And pedestrians think cars will get out of the way.”
Others are working to improve road safety too.
Mike Pritchard, senior transportation planner with the York County Planning Commission, takes an approach similar to Harper’s center for traffic safety by seeking answers through crash data. The commission focuses more on improving infrastructure on roads that have crashes.
Pennsylvania Department of Transportation engineers then seek to find solutions like widening shoulders or putting in mid-block crossings.
Kevin Stout, 53, still runs in the morning. For his shorter runs, he sets out on Nauvoo Road, donning an orange vest. On his longer distances, he runs up in Harrisburg on the city’s Capital Area Greenbelt where he says it is safer.
The death of his wife remains a mystery to him and his children who range in age from 13 to 21. Over the last several months, he has “grown a new appreciation for single parents.”
The family has a strong foundation in faith. That’s why Kevin went to Bangladesh as a young man — he traveled with the Mennonite church in the 1980s to help grow soybeans for the population so they had more protein in their diet. Today, he is an interim pastor at two local churches in York: Trinity Lutheran and Grace Lutheran.
He remembers the morning he found out Nita died. A friend of hers was at their home to pick her up but she wasn’t back from her walk. The friend had seen emergency crews at an accident nearby so she and Kevin went to check it out.
When he got close to the scene, he saw Nita’s orange sweatshirt on the ground. He knew right away.
He asked a police officer if he could go up to his wife. The officer explained it would be horrific. But he insisted and they allowed him back to her.
He held her hand. And prayed. Memories flashed so fast that he can’t remember them all. There was the memory of meeting her in the village in Bangladesh. Their wedding ceremony there years later in 100 percent humidity. The births of their four boys.
“You never expect your wife to die. But it can hit and it hit hard,” he said. “I don’t ask why. You lean on the promises of God.”
And, he said, “God promises life isn’t easy.”
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