Let me paint you a picture of a hypothetical situation.
I’m a large man – I’m over 6 feet tall, and nobody has ever mistaken me for a sprinter. Linebacker is a more apt comparison. So imagine that I’m in a crowded mall, maybe during the holiday rush. I’ve got a lot on my mind and on my plate – I’m trying to get all of my shopping done quickly so that I can go home and make dinner for my family. I’m moving through the crowd at a brisk pace, passing slower-moving shoppers, my thoughts keenly trained on getting to the store where I know the last gift on my list is waiting.
As I round the corner near the food court, a toddler, maybe 3 years old, makes a break from his mother – he’s heading towards the mall Santa at considerable speed. As I’m walking past an older lady pushing a walker, the child, not looking where he is going, runs smack into the side of my right knee as it swings forward into the next stride. The boy is knocked down, and begins to cry.
Now in spite of the fact that it was the child that ran into me, that I was simply walking in a straight line and he ran directly into my path, I can guarantee you that it is me who apologizes in this situation. I certainly apologize to his mother, I make sure he’s OK, and I generally feel awful about the whole situation. And, in all likelihood, I should feel awful. In most instances, I’m alert enough and aware enough of my surroundings to preemptively see a runaway toddler and avoid that collision. But in this case I was hurried and distracted, and I missed the cues. We all do this often, I’m sure. When we’re in an area like a mall or an amusement park, we’re hyper-aware of fast moving young people, and we take steps to avoid them colliding with us. As larger, stronger individuals, we take it upon ourselves to make sure that our actions don’t cause injury to a more vulnerable person.
And that brings me to the point of this post: It seems as though that sense of duty and care that we all apply while we’re walking up and vanishes when we get into a car.
Lately, there’s been a barrage of messaging from various agencies, whether they be in Ontario or beyond, taking aim at the behaviours of people walking and cycling. From messages about wearing bright, reflective clothing to talking about the (invented) scourge of distracted walking to asking pedestrians to remove their earbuds while walking, much of the focus of these messages are on the behaviours of people walking.
Now let’s be clear – people do have a responsibility to look out for their own safety. I don’t advocate wearing headphones, blaring loud music while playing Candy Crush on your phone and walking out into free-flowing traffic. But to continuously shift the onus onto people walking by demonizing the very things that make walking so enjoyable – listening to music, staring up at the buildings, enjoying conversations and the sights and sounds of your environment, the ability to simply get up and go without needing to strap on lights, reflective safety vests and protective helmets, belies the fact that the vast majority of injuries to people walking occur because the person driving didn’t obey the law. They most often failed to yield the right of way at an intersection, although there are lots of other causes as well.
One of the worst examples of this culture of victim-blaming I’ve seen to date came, unfortunately, from Peel Regional Police. During their “Pedestrian Safety Week”, Peel Police offer such gems of advice like “Don’t rely solely on traffic signals or stop signs. Ensure that it is safe to cross the road before crossing”. At the end of their list of advice, which includes the usual “wear reflective clothing”, “cross at crosswalks” and other helpful tips, they offer one last piece of counsel, just in case there was any remaining doubt that their campaign has little interest in tackling the root cause of injuries to people walking – dangerous behaviours by people driving.
Peel Regional Police are urging pedestrians to be extra vigilant. Keep in mind that just because you have the right of way doesn’t mean it is safe to utilize it.
Let that sink in for a second. Rather than running a campaign to encourage people driving to drive more attentively, to be extra careful of people walking and to always, as a default, yield the right of way to a more vulnerable road user, the police emphasize that, as someone who is not encased in a metal box, you need to be extra vigilant to protect yourself against those who would break the law and fail to yield the right of way, potentially endangering your life.
Asking people walking to remove their earphones ignores the fact that even with earphones in, you still hear more than a person in a car with their windows up. Asking people to wear bright, reflective clothing ignores the fact that if a person driving can’t see a large object “until it’s too late”, then they’re arguably driving too fast for the light conditions or their own abilities. Asking people to cross at crosswalks ignores the fact that there are many “signal crossing deserts” in modern urban environments, where safe crosswalks may be separated by a kilometer or more. All of these asks serve the same purpose – to absolve those driving and those who design the systems where rapid movement of cars are prioritized, of their responsibility to plan for the more vulnerable. When you’re driving, speeding puts people at risk. Looking at your phone puts people at risk. Turning up the radio or fidgeting with your controls puts people at risk. If you drive at a speed that allows you to react and prevent a collision and you keep all of your attention on the task of driving, you’re planning for those more vulnerable – you’re doing what I didn’t do in the shopping mall example, watching constantly to make sure you don’t get involved in a collision with someone more vulnerable than yourself.
And when planners and engineers design roads for travel at 65-70km/h through residential areas, when they space safe crossings far apart, when they fail to provide sidewalks or bike lanes or off-road trails, they’re failing to plan for those more vulnerable populations as well.
One last point, before I offer my modified suggestions for pedestrian safety, and it’s an important one.
A lot of these requests make it seem like it’s hipsters looking down at their phones being injured or killed on the roads when they’re out walking. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you look at the data for who dies while walking all across Ontario, one group stands out as dramatically over-represented: Seniors. Take a look at this map of pedestrian fatalities in Toronto in 2016: In 2016, of the pedestrians that were identified with ages, 33 of the 45 people who died were identified as being over 55, with the vast majority of those being over 65. It’s not young, healthy people making poor choices being killed on the roads while walking – it’s predominantly grandparents and great grandparents moving slowly in dangerous areas.
So without further ado, I’ll present my #PedestrianSafety Tips:
When driving be sure to:
- Constantly scan the roadway ahead, keeping a close eye for people walking. Especially in residential neighbourhoods, where children can be expected to be playing, keep your speed limited to 30km/h to maximize your response time and minimize the risk of death to people walking.
- Maintain full attention on the task at hand. Inattention and distraction is now the leading cause of collisions in Ontario, so focus on the road ahead.
- Yield the right-of-way when required by law. When in doubt, yield the right of way to people walking anyways. Their safety and ability to get home to their families is worth the extra few seconds of delay it may cause you.
- If conditions are sub-optimal (rain, dark, snow etc), adjust your driving habits accordingly. Drive more slowly, and pay extra attention.
When walking be sure to:
- Remain attentive while continuing to enjoy the most basic and human form of movement.
- Identify areas where safe crossings are required and call your community’s traffic department, planning department and local councillors to let them know about the unsafe conditions.
- Program your community’s local law enforcement’s non-emergency number into your phone and vigorously report any person driving who fails to yield the right of way.
Did I miss any tips? Send them to me on Twitter using the Hashtag #RealPedSafety!
Update: Since this post was originally written in 2016, things haven’t necessarily gotten better. Where I live, in Ontario, we’ve seen the proposal of the incredibly misguided “Zombie Law“, which led to a flurry of media activity pointing the finger primarily at vulnerable road users. A spate of deaths in early 2018 led the Toronto Police to remind residents to “Cross the Road as if Your Life Depends on It” – not exactly the kind of message that tells residents that walking – the most basic form of human transportation – is a pleasant, enjoyable thing to do.
We haven’t reached the threshold yet where safety takes priority over speed – we still seem resigned to the idea that death and injury are just the cost of doing business when it comes to our transportation systems. More and more people in North America are realizing how preposterous this is, and are starting to look to what is happening in the Vision Zero and Beyond Vision Zero Movements, where human fallibility is acknowledged and planned for so that when mistakes happen, the result is not a loss of life. It will take time, effort and continuous advocacy, but I remain optimistic that we’ll stop accepting the trade off, and realize that urban life works much better at a human scale and a human pace. I look forward to continuing the conversation!