The Phantom Pedestrian Menace

In case you missed it, here’s the blog post by TWU 100 spokesperson Pete Donohue that set off a local Twitterstorm yesterday, in its entirety:

Pedestrian Menace


JANUARY 11 — Pedestrians are a menace — to themselves. Not all the time, but more often than you might think. “Dangerous pedestrian choices,” including crossing the street against the signal, are the primary cause in 31% of the city’s pedestrian fatalities, according to a two-year study. Pedestrian actions are a contributing cause in another 16% of pedestrian fatalities, according to the city Department of Transportation study.

In other words, pedestrians have at least some culpability in nearly half — 47% — of the traffic accidents in the city that result in a pedestrian being killed.

Pedestrian behavior is most problematic in Manhattan where sidewalks and streets are more crowded. It’s the primary cause in 43% of pedestrian fatalities in the borough and a contributing cause in another 16% — more than half of the accidents, 56%. Those statistics, which were tucked inside the Vision Zero Pedestrian Safety Action Plan that Mayor de Blasio’s administration released last year, are striking. Yet, you never hear about them. Some safety crusaders only want to talk about the city not redesigning streets fast enough and cops not cracking down hard enough on drivers. In their eyes, anyone with a set of car keys is a Mad Max maniac.

The DOT gives pedestrian safety talks in public schools and senior centers, according to its website. But I’ve never heard a city official speaking harshly or at length about pedestrians carelessly and recklessly putting themselves in harms’ way. The role of pedestrians certainly hasn’t been given equal weight to other aspects of the problem. If anything, the city report at times manipulates figures to keep the focus on drivers.

State Sen. Jose Peralta (D-Queens) and Assemblyman Michael DenDekker (D-Queens) dared raised the issue of “distracted walking” during a December press conference two days after a 17-year-old boy was killed crossing Northern Blvd. by a hit-and-run driver. Peralta said the city should create a public awareness campaign about the perils of texting while walking, along the lines of those targeting drivers. Seems reasonable enough. DenDekker talked about his proposal to issue $25 fines to pedestrians who text in crosswalks. They were overwhelmingly ignored by the media and vilified by one zealous advocacy group’s blog. Peralta and DenDekker “mostly blamed the victims of dangerous driving,” the blog stated.

It’s nonsense, of course. It’s a fact that people are constantly darting or sauntering through intersections against the signal, crossing midblock far from the relative safety of a crosswalk, texting with their heads down. We all do it. Only tourists from the Midwest, or from countries with a more obedient populace, seem to wait patiently on the curb. The city’s statistics quantify the dangerousness of our impatience and inattention. It would be reckless to ignore them.

After I saw the post, the main question I had was “Why?” Why is it so important to the transit union to assign fault to people who get struck by drivers? To blame the same people who are walking to catch the train or the bus.

Sure, the union wants to exempt bus drivers from the Right of Way Law, but that law doesn’t protect people crossing “against the signal, crossing midblock far from the relative safety of the crosswalk.” It only applies to drivers who harm people following all the rules. The post doesn’t defend a particular position of the union, it just inflames people who don’t believe in blaming pedestrians when they are injured or killed in traffic.

The post only makes sense as pure provocation — reviving the Right of Way Law animosities by stirring things up between street safety advocates and the union. Well played, and sure, I’ll bite.

Donohue asked via Twitter today why Streetsblog “ignores” stats in the city’s Vision Zero report that indicate “pedestrian error” contributes to a significant share of serious crashes in NYC. (For the record, here’s our post from the day that report was released.)

There’s a simple reason Streetsblog doesn’t spend time harping on pedestrian behavior — it wouldn’t help anyone. America already has a vast educational apparatus devoted to inculcating fear of dangerous traffic at a very young age. There are little rhyming catchphrases, mountains of pamphlets and flyers, and grade-school curricula that impart the rules of the road for pedestrians.

In fact we’ve probably taken this too far. The received wisdom among most American law enforcement agencies still seems to be that most people who get injured or killed while walking had it coming, and the best thing to do about the problem is hand out some jaywalking tickets.

Where has that gotten us? If the U.S. had the same per capita traffic death rate as the United Kingdom, tens of thousands of people wouldn’t die each year. New York City is safer than most of America because we’re less dependent on cars, but our safety record still pales next to cities like London, Tokyo, and Berlin, with traffic death rates less than half the rate in NYC.

What do safer cities do differently than us? I’ve never come across any evidence that they’re saving lives by walloping New York on pedestrian education.

What they do have are street designs that slow down traffic to non-lethal speeds, robust automated speed enforcement, and stronger traffic laws that protect people walking and biking. In some parts of the world, it’s culturally accepted that when you get behind the wheel of a multi-ton machine, you should pay attention and travel at speeds where you can react to the sometimes unpredictable movements of people on foot and avoid killing anyone.

That stuff works, blaming victims doesn’t.