CAROLINA BEACH, NC (WECT) - The driver of a Jeep that hit and killed a 1-year-old girl last week has been charged with misdemeanor death by motor vehicle and failure to yield to a pedestrian, according to Carolina Beach police.
Police arrested the driver, Heather Ligotino, on those charges Monday. Ligotino, 39, of Wilmington, was taken before the New Hanover County Magistrate’s Office, and released on a written promise to appear in court.
Ligotino reportedly hit the child, Cora Kruger, and her grandmother, Catherine Hagelstein, 56, both of Wilmington, while they were walking along the marked crosswalk at the intersection of South Lake Park Boulevard and Cape Fear Boulevard around 10:15 a.m. on Friday.
Cora and Hagelstein were taken to New Hanover Regional Medical Center for treatment. Cora was pronounced dead at the hospital a short time later.
The crash is still under investigation. However, police said in a news release that no impairment from drugs or alcohol is suspected.
Hagelstein has non-life-threatening injuries, according to police.
According to Carolina Beach Mayor Joe Benson, town leaders have been trying to add a stoplight on Winner Avenue near the Lazy Pirate to slow down traffic. Benson said they also want to decrease the speed limit to 25 miles per hour on Lake Park Boulevard. It starts at 35 miles per hour shortly after crossing the Snow’s Cut Bridge, and decreases to 25 miles per hour near Lumberton Boulevard.
He said the town conducted a study about two years ago on the safety of North Lake Park Boulevard. It found a 50 to 60 percent higher incident rate on a one and a half mile stretch of highway where there is only a single traffic light. There are six lights total on the entire stretch of Lake Park Boulevard.
The town’s only road block is the road is maintained by the state. Benson said town leaders brought the projects up to North Carolina Department of Transportation leaders last year, and he was told it could take up to five years to complete.
Now, Benson is hoping this tragedy is a wake-up call that the area needs some safety changes.
“You would hate to think that any tragedy, particularly the one that took place Friday when the baby was killed...would accelerate action or get anybody’s attention. In this case, I don’t think it did," Benson said. “What it did was, I think, make it a little bit more apparent.”
According to Carolina Police Chief Christopher Spivey, the police department has had several initiatives in the past few years to help with bike and pedestrian safety. The department also more strictly enforced yielding to pedestrians laws over the past three to four years, including issuing citations to people who do not yield.
Spivey called Lake Park Boulevard the “main artery” of Carolina Beach. He said the town may look into ways to educate drivers of the rules of the road, possibly through billboards or other means.
“Part of the education and reinforcement is also incumbent upon drivers, and those in the crosswalk," he said. “Just because you have a crosswalk and have a signal doesn’t mean that you don’t have to be vigilant and aware of your surroundings.”
Carolina Beach resident Kelley Hargrave agrees that town leaders need to find a way to educate drivers.
“It’s the drivers that don’t pay attention to the crosswalks and to who is coming across and who has the right of way,” she said. “I don’t know if people understand the law about pedestrians. I guess that’s the thing. We need to make people more aware of what the law is.”
Other residents who walked by the memorial for Cora on Monday said they’re saddened by the tragedy but not surprised. Many said they see people drive distracted every day.
A spokesperson for the DOT said a crew is coming to Carolina Beach on April 1 to do its own investigation, as is typical protocol. Spivey said that is a quicker response than normal from the DOT because of the seriousness of the incident.
The crew will hear the town’s ideas for safety and determine if changes need to be made in the area. The spokesperson said the DOT does its own investigation to look for ways to make improvements, including looking at traffic volume at the time of the crash, pedestrian traffic, future development and other factors.
The bike and pedestrian safety committee held its monthly meeting Monday night. The group talked about ways to make pedestrian safety improvements specifically regarding Friday’s incident.