Spot the Pedestrian... As the dark nights are well and truly with us, pedestrian safety becomes a hotter topic than usual. Messages from organisations such as ICBC and the RCMP have been warning pedestrians to be careful crossing the road, which subsequently face criticism calling for the messages to target drivers rather than pedestrians or for our streets to be better designed. Read on for some thoughts on that...
Social media provides an easy outlet to criticise and the criticism is fair to some extent, but in my eyes, messages targeting both drivers and pedestrians are equally important. Calls for better infrastructure are also equally important but not at the expense of anything else.
Transport Canada provide a summary of pedestrian traffic fatalities, but its based on slightly out of date data (2004-2008). However it provides some interesting insights:
Here in BC, ICBC provides some more recent statistics about crashes involving pedestrians in BC. In the region of 2,400 collisions occur every year with close to 60 fatalities every year.
ICBC provides the following breakdown of stats and some advice to stay safe. Top contributing factors in BC are driver distraction, failing to yield the right of way, and weather (presumably hindering visibility or increasing stopping distances).
The Problem with Pedestrian Focused Messaging
Where placing responsibility on the pedestrian fails entirely is where you have less able bodied, young or elderly with less risk awareness, or people with mental disabilities crossing the road. In those cases the pedestrian may not be able to determine a safe crossing opportunity. This is why its important to also targets drivers or improve infrastructure. But for the able bodied, some responsibility is entirely reasonable.
There are often claims that the primary cause of pedestrian collisions is distracted pedestrians, despite evidence (shown above) to the contrary. One recent example of pedestrian blaming is the Ford tweet below (thanks to Martyn Schmoll for sharing this) which suggests their car can avoid hitting distracted pedestrians. In reality it is more likely that this functionality, which is actually a good thing, will be used more often to assist distracted drivers and prevent them hitting pedestrians legitimately crossing the road. Ford! You should have put the juggling joker in the car!
Continuing with distracted pedestrians, which usually means lost in their phones or in their music. Why shouldn't you text or listen to music when walking though? Its not the same as driving where a lack of concentration could kill another person. At the most you might bump into somebody and the risk to life is primarily your own.
That does not mean the pedestrian is absolved of all responsibility, if you are doing other things, you should be diverting your attention from them when you get to conflict areas and provide your full attention. If you step out into the road with your head stuck in your phone, is it your fault? It is! This is where better driver awareness, street design or lower posted speeds can reduce the likelihood of a collision or fatality, on those rare occasions where it is the pedestrians mistake walking out into the roadway.
There are many arguments that educating pedestrians shouldn't be the priority, and streets should be designed in a safer manner. This is all well and good, but the reality is that we have a lot of streets historically designed for cars and until such time as that is not commonplace, and until such time as children don't run without thinking, education is still important. Back when I was a kid we had the Green Cross Code... Woah... Who remembers Kevin Keegan...
Another controversial safety message is hi-vis clothing. I've read on many occasions that hi-vis clothing is sending the wrong message, a cop-out, and putting the onus on pedestrians to stay safe rather than drivers to drive safe or streets to be designed safely. While I agree with the sentiment, in the real world in North America at least, where street design is rarely optimized in the pedestrians favour, and where drivers may be distracted by their phone, a conversation with others in their car, looking for a street sign, or blinded by oncoming lights, hi-vis can improve a pedestrians visibility and reduce vehicle/pedestrian collisions.
Growing up in a place where the sun rarely makes an appearance, I have the luxury of highly reflective legs, but when i'm not wearing shorts, reflective material undoubtedly makes me more visible. How can that be a bad thing? By no means should it be mandatory, and it is undoubtedly a sign that our streets are less safe than we would like, but we shouldn't decry people for recommending it.
What about the Street?
Of course street design can factor into the pedestrian safety equation. For a start, in North America we have this thing called 'walk with traffic', where turning vehicles must yield to anyone in the crosswalk. Furthermore, vehicles can also turn 'right on red'. This is fantastic for vehicle capacity but less so for pedestrian safety as it relies on people whether driving or walking to pay attention to others and anticipate conflicts. In the UK for instance, there is no 'walk with traffic' and no 'right on red' thus a big part of the conflict is removed. I don't see us removing these traffic capacity boosting features anytime soon, but its an area for conflict that doesn't exist in other places.
The street design can also contribute to the likelihood of collisions, particularly at times when its dark. Lighting may not be provided, be poorly located, limited, not working, or obstructed by overgrown trees. The photo at the top is a good example of an intersection with some bright and some dark spots. Trees or signage may also obstruct visibility towards pedestrians or their visibility along the roadway.
Looking at more progressive countries, we also see designs where sidewalks continue through side street intersections at-grade as shown below, requiring side street traffic to drive up and over the sidewalk, this "speed hump" of sorts identifies priority and calms traffic, and if nothing else reduces vehicle speeds to a level where fatalities are less likely.
Collisions that occur mid-block where no crossing is provided (I don't want to use the term Jaywalking) while technically the fault of the pedestrian crossing where they shouldn't, can often be attributed to poor urban design. Why was the person crossing there? Why was there no crossing provided? Perhaps the next nearest crossing was located so far away at intersections spaced on North American mega blocks, that it was easier to cross mid-block and the perceived risk was worth the reward of the saved travel time. The beauty of human beings are that we are highly mobile, a curb is not a hindrance to us like it is for a car, thus trying to control movements the same way is a recipe for disaster. Just making it illegal clearly doesn't work either.
So what about Car Drivers?
An finally, onto the main culprits! Car drivers are the ones controlling several tons of metal capable of high speeds and most importantly capable of killing pedestrians. If there were no cars, there'd be no fatalities! Driving one has to come with great responsibility.
The problem is, it has become such an everyday part of life and collisions have become such a regular occurrence that its become normal. Much like we shouldn't let Trumps antics in US politics become normal, we should never let automobile caused fatalities be considered normal. Perhaps its too late and we need to un-normalize (is that a word?) it.
Car drivers are responsible for ensuring their speeds are appropriate for the conditions, that they have a suitable view of the road ahead and where they may be turning into, and that they are able to stop should something happen in front. Pedestrians must also realise that cars can take a long time to stop and there could be all manner of distractions in the car or around them that may be preventing the driver from giving them their full attention. Those pedestrians that do not drive may not think about that.
To sum up, safety requires education of both drivers and pedestrians, improved visibility whether by clothing or better design of geometry, street lighting, landscaping, etc, better urban design that slows vehicles down and provides drivers with awareness of conflicts, and good network planning to provide safe crossing locations where they are required.