THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED

THIS SUNNYSLOPE HIGH STUDENT WAS HEADED TOWARD THE GRAND OLE OPRY. THEN HE STEPPED INTO PHOENIX'S MOST DANGEROUS CROSSWALK.

Coby Perkins is talking about the days when he could play his bluegrass banjo like a champ.

"I loved to play," the nineteen-year-old says in a sluggish monotone. "I was fast. I was good. I played `Foggy Mountain Breakdown' and `Cripple Creek,' all of them. I played with Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley. They are the best. But I can't remember them. I can't even remember my accident. I just remember far back, way back."

Coby gets upset when his dad, Kin, takes the banged-up banjo out of its case. That's because he can't do more these days than pick a few lonely notes with his right hand. His left hand, which used to "flog" the neck of his instrument in time-honored bluegrass style, is useless.

"Maybe I could play if my brain was better," Coby says in that disturbing drone. "I used to know how to read music, but it looks like a bunch of dots and lines now. I just want my brain to be better."

But his brain isn't going to get better. Coby hasn't been the same since a van struck him in September 1987 as he walked across Central Avenue to a football game at north Phoenix's Sunnyslope High School. The boy was in a coma for several weeks, his survival in doubt. Doctors say he's doing about as well as he'll ever do.

"He doesn't know how to laugh," says his mother, Judy. "He doesn't know how to cry. He doesn't know emotions. He's not like he was before. He's just not the same. And he'll probably never be the same."

Coby's IQ has dropped from the normal range to borderline mentally retarded. His concentration level is pitifully low, and his job prospects--even in a structured setting for the handicapped--are questionable. Coby can hobble around on a crutch for short distances, but is wheelchair-bound whenever he leaves his parents' home.

If a Maricopa County jury gets its way, the City of Phoenix will pay Coby Perkins and his parents handsomely for their pain and suffering. On June 8, the jury awarded the trio $6.3 million--$3.7 million to Coby and $1.3 million to each parent. It marks the largest personal-injury verdict ever rendered against the city. The jury determined the city was liable for unsafe conditions that caused the van's driver to barrel through a marked crosswalk and ruin Coby's life.

Underpinning Coby's tragedy is a tale of political ineptitude and an intractable city bureaucracy more concerned with saving face than in fixing an intersection that was hell on wheels. Well before Coby Perkins' accident, the marked crosswalk at Central and Townley was among the most dangerous in the Valley. Coby was far from the first student to have been struck by a vehicle there.

IN MARCH 1986, Carolyn Roberts' grandson, a student at Sunnyslope High, was nearly hit by a car in the Central and Townley crosswalk. Roberts phoned City Hall to complain about it.

"You would hear brakes squeal, children would be in the crosswalk," Roberts recalls. "Cars seemed to be accelerating after coming off of the stoplight from Dunlap. It needed something to slow down the traffic. I was thinking that we needed a stoplight there."

Roberts also contacted the office of then-Councilmember Paul Johnson, in whose district the crossing lay. She says an aide to Johnson told her "the city engineers did not think it was necessary to do anything else in that area."

Seven months later, they were proved wrong. On the evening of October 3, 1986, Carolyn Roberts was parked in a Sunnyslope High lot. As she waited for her grandson, she saw Maryann Gutmans and a friend laughing as they walked to the Central-Townley crosswalk. Then she "heard the horrible thud" as a southbound car hit Maryann. The fifteen-year-old Sunnyslope High student died hours later. The girl's death sickened and angered Roberts.

"I called the school, I called Paul Johnson's office, I called the city engineers," Roberts says. "I wanted to know how many more had to be killed before we could have something done out there."

But just two days after Maryann's death, another student had both his legs broken as he tried to cross the busy thoroughfare.

Dozens of area residents--most of them Sunnyslope students--picketed, hoping to force the city to do something to avert another tragedy. Toting signs that said "STOP THE PAIN," "NO MORE BLOOD," and "DEATH TRAP," the protesters captured the media's attention for a day or two.

The Central-Townley crosswalk had long been the stuff of legend among Sunnyslope students and their parents. Police records indicate that cars struck five pedestrians and one bicyclist at the crosswalk during 1985 and 1986. All but one of the accidents involved student-age pedestrians and southbound vehicles in the lane closest to the median strip separating Central's north-south traffic.

Phoenix's traffic engineers didn't bother to piece together this information until after Coby Perkins was hit. Until then, they relied on faulty data which they said demonstrated no need for changes at the crosswalk.

It's easy, however, to see why so many kids were being struck by cars there. While it goes against common sense, national studies indicate pedestrians are twice as likely per capita to get hit in marked crosswalks as in unmarked crosswalks.

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