Pedestrians don’t need to die, although we tolerate their killing

A few hours ago, once again I was almost hit by a car, in a marked crosswalk. The driver saw me coming, wasn’t going fast, and had time to stop. But she didn’t. This does not happen to me every day, but often enough that I choose intersections with lights or, at least, all-way stops. But even that is no safety assurance. A few blocks away, at the intersection of Madison, Union, and 12th Avenue, cars often don’t stop for pedestrians who have the green light, causing many close calls.

Google “pedestrian deaths” and you’ll be appalled.

Many studies show how pedestrian fatalities trend in different cities and regions. Some improve over time, some not.

Many drivers forget that pedestrians are people just like they are. Instead, they see a needless obstacle that slows them down.

Many drivers forget that pedestrians are people just like they are. Instead, they see a needless obstacle that slows them down.

Male pedestrians seem to be more likely to die from their injuries. But men, women, and children die—every day, all the time. Hundreds and thousands of them, every year. As a driver, I have experienced situations where a person walked out or ran into my lane, in the middle of a block, and only luck stopped me from hitting them. But that happens quite rarely. As far as I can tell from experience and reading up on the subject, almost all pedestrian deaths are preventable. They don’t have to happen.

Why, then, do we let them continue?

Nobody I know agrees with the statement, “Pedestrians deserve to die.” Why do we accept pedestrian fatalities as a given?

Conversations about this topic are often frustrating. Drivers are angry (aren’t they always?). Pedestrians are mad and feel there’s nothing they can do, because they are the weakest party in traffic. They don’t get much respect, in any case—some folks treat this issue like something that’s not worth worrying about. “If pedestrians are careful, nothing happens to them,” I sometimes hear. But that’s not true. Plenty of careful pedestrians I know have been in very dangerous situations.

There may be some drivers who are zombies, sadists, or raging idiots. But most of them are people much like you and I. They even walk sometimes, experiencing the indignities of pedestrian life for themselves. And yet, when we get behind the wheel, we are subject to some sort of possession that makes us lose all empathy. Why is that? Why do we behave so often as if we were callous, unfeeling killers, completely oblivious to the pedestrian risk and experience? We can make and use powerful driving machines, but we have not evolved to the point where we can use them responsibly as a matter of course. Instead, they take us over.

It doesn’t help that, through the millennia, pedestrians were treated as scum. Superior and successful people had horses, carts, coaches, elephants, sleighs, slaves to carry them—they got off their feet as soon as status and wealth permitted them to do so. Physically, their position was almost always elevated, so they could look down on walkers, much like SUV drivers can do today. Pedestrians were in the way, not on the way.

I don’t think moralizing and pointing fingers—any fingers—is helpful, or we would have seen a difference some time ago. So, what can we do? Here are some ideas:

  • Drivers’ education. Provide more training on safe pedestrian/driver interactions. Test more stringently on driving behaviors that are safe for pedestrians. Treat driving more like a privilege, not an entitlement. Do not give driving licenses to learning drivers who have a tendency to act aggressively and thoughtlessly in traffic.
  • Change the perception of driving. It’s a fun, resource-intensive, potentially lethal thing to do. The risks for pedestrians and drivers are huge. We’re telling smokers and drinkers that their habits might be harmful to themselves and others. Why can’t we incorporate similar “drive responsibly” messaging into advertising for cars and drivers’ education? If a generation or two are exposed to it, their driving behaviors might be different.
  • Right turn on red. In areas where a lot of people walk, this adds to pedestrian risk. Drivers simply don’t like to stop and look. We should prohibit the right turn on red at many more intersections than we do now, and find better placement for the signs that inform drivers of the change.
  • Pedestrian education. Pedestrians need to learn how to assert themselves safely. Standing by the roadside waiting for drivers to pass is sometimes unavoidable, but other times you can step out and help them stop, especially if you wear bright clothing, wave, or carry one of those orange flags one sometimes finds. Take your rights. When drivers do the right thing and stop for you, don’t wave them on. Smile, thank them, and cross in front of them. Especially when there’s another pedestrian also trying to cross, it’s completely unacceptable and very unsafe to wave drivers on.
  • Pedestrian action. If you are hit or almost hit by a driver, especially when you are crossing legally, call the police. Try and get a description of the car and driver, or the license number if you can. Walk more. Walk in groups. The more walkers drivers see, the more they will get into the habit of cooperating with them.
  • Change the way we talk. Usually, a pedestrian death is not the result of an “accident.” It’s the result of our actions and attitudes. Call it what it is, a killing. And, sometimes, it’s murder. Let’s get real about how we discuss this. It doesn’t do any good to belittle it.
  • Enforcement. I’m all for the red-light and other traffic cameras, I’ll admit. Also, I would like to see police departments spend more time observing driver behavior and ticketing drivers who don’t stop for pedestrians. I know there are issues of resources and priorities that can make this difficult.
  • Penalties. Our laws are very easy on drivers who kill people, drunk or sober. That needs to change. It won’t happen unless a lot of people clamor for it.
  • Crossing guards. People volunteer in school zones, but why not at risky intersections in other areas? Lots of older people and unemployed might have time to work a crossing during commute times. Cities might even find some funds to pay them a stipend.
  • Social media and conversations. We need to help each other wake up, remember, and be the traffic participants we would like others to become. The status quo is not acceptable. Let’s have practical, non-moralizing talks about what we are trying to change—a car-friendly mindset that’s supported by centuries of pedestrian abuse.

I know pedestrian fatalities may seem like a minor problem if you consider wars, poverty, racism, and climate change. But people are dying needlessly. Is that really what you want? If you ever walk or drive—you can help change the way we act in traffic. Got any ideas?

6 Comments

Filed under driving, pedestrians, personal, traffic, travel

6 responses to “Pedestrians don’t need to die, although we tolerate their killing

  1. I totally agree with your points. Some of them are in action in Japan:
    -Having to pay $3,000+ in driver’s education courses and tests makes it hard to think of driving as a game.
    -No right turns on red.
    -Enforcement: there are police boxes on or near many major intersections.
    -Not sure of the jail time, but I’ve heard of offenders being ostracized from family and friends, and even lose their jobs.

    Having said that, many drivers are extremely cautious and hesitant when in or near an intersection. They also have to worry about what’s becoming more common in Seattle: bicyclists who conform to the rules of the road, unless it’s inconvenient for them, then they’ll change to the sidewalk and expect for cars and pedestrians to make way for them. But that’s another blog post, I guess.

    • Very interesting, Josh. If offenders indeed experience some sort of shunning or different social treatment, I suppose the culture around these issues in Japan is completely different. If it prevents another killing, great. I sort of like the fees associated with getting a driving license, although there is the class aspect to it, too – you don’t want to make driving more difficult for the poor and ‘minorities’. You want to make it difficult for potentially aggressive drivers and those who have a hard time getting the discipline down. Probably, more rigorous testing is a good approach. I know that, in most states in the U.S., it’s far easier to get a driving license than almost anywhere in the world, because getting a learner’s permit only requires a few hours of reading and some common sense, and the driving test is generally a piece of cake. I would love to see it getting more difficult, also because, as a driver, I want to be surrounded by the most competent people imaginable.
      Don’t get me started on bicyclists. Most of them just try to get by and cooperate with everybody, just like the rest of us. And a few make travel difficult and get people mad, and those are the ones everyone remembers, unfortunately.

  2. Agree with you! Epic point of view

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