The Problem With Treating Pedestrians Like Drivers

After U.S. DOT released a report earlier this month on pedestrian safety, media outlets around the country raced to produce indictments of “drunk walking.”

We design places that make crossing the street mortally dangerous, then blame pedestrians for their own deaths. Photo: ##http://njbikeped.org/services/history-of-complete-streets-in-the-united-states-2/##NJ Bicycle and Pedestrian Resource Center##

“Drunk Walking Leads to Pedestrian Fatalities,” exclaimed Tulsa’s News on 6, as if people on foot have the same responsibility to be sober as people operating fast, heavy machinery. “Among pedestrians aged 25- to 34-years-old who were killed, half were alcohol-impaired,” wrote the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Alison Grant, applying the same .08 percent blood-alcohol standard that’s used to measure driving impairment. These articles stop just short of saying a legal prohibition on “drunk walking” is the next logical step.

Applying the same behavioral standards to walking that we attach to driving is a creeping trend. The New York Times has ruminated on the “dangers of distracted walking.” In California a new Senate resolution encourages education in “defensive walking and biking” as a response to pedestrian fatalities among children.

It may be tempting to use driving terms to frame discussions about pedestrian safety because driving is, in many places, the default mode of transportation in the U.S. But there’s a problem with simply assigning the responsibilities that come with driving — like being sober, not texting — to walking. Walking is a right, not a revocable privilege like driving.

Kids walk. Blind people walk. People with poor judgment walk. That’s not going to change, and we shouldn’t pretend it can or will. Texting while walking, or trying to cross the street with .09 percent blood alcohol content should not put people at risk of an early death.

Pedestrian deaths are a systemic problem, and the problem isn’t that people are texting, or drunk, or not being defensive enough. Pedestrians aren’t, in themselves, doing anything dangerous, at least until you add cars to the equation.

The core problem is that it isn’t safe for people to walk. In too many places, this is because we’ve designed intersections like high-stakes obstacle courses for people on foot. We allow people to drive at potentially fatal speeds in pedestrian-rich areas. And now we’re talking about pedestrian deaths in a way that equates walking with driving.

It’s a powerful testament to the structural inequality faced people on foot in this country that a report about 4,000 pedestrian deaths each year could be framed as an indictment of “drunk walking.”

  • davistrain

    Reduce driving? Heavens to Henry Ford! Just the other day one of our local newspapers ran an article about how the economy is improving and motor vehicle sales are up. And the writer made no indication that this was a bad thing. (with the weekend coming, we can expect plenty of pages of car ads in the Friday and Saturday papers). Our logical minds know that the motorized, suburbanized US lifestyle can’t go on indefinitely, but when I go out to run errands (admittedly in a Honda Accord) there don’t seem to be any fewer vehicles out and about on the streets and highways. And although I do see more people on the trains when I ride Metro Rail, it would appear that relatively few Americans are swearing off or even cutting back on driving.

  • Daniel Winks

    “except for speeding”…

    You do realize that speeding is the NUMBER ONE cause of motor vehicle violence, right? And the number one factor that causes what would have been an injury to instead be a death.

    You also realize that bicycles, in their entire history of existence, have caused less deaths than a single DAY of motor vehicles, right?

    Regardless of whether cyclists are following the law or not, it’s NOT the cyclists who are killing and maiming dozens of people every day in this country!

  • Anonymous

    I think it’s not a victim card but a difference in framing. There is the individual “victim vs. wrongdoer” framing where the most important thing is assigning blame to an individual. And then there is the “built environment” framing where the most important thing is not the merits of individuals in specific cases, but looking at patterns of accidents and thinking, how can we design our public spaces, our roadways, and our transit infrastructure to minimize those accidents?

    So it’s not that no drunk pedestrian could ever conceivably pose a danger or be at fault, it’s just that, in aggregate, cars are much more dangerous and they are what should be most restricted in pedestrian-rich environments. If we are going to have bars and entertainment districts in our cities where people are likely to be walking slightly drunk, we should accept that fact and design the surrounding streets and speed limits to be less dangerous.

    It’s also true that mildly drunk able-bodied young people have similar limitations (reaction time, vision, coordination) to some elderly or disabled people – so if you design to accommodate those folks, much of the “drunk people” hazard also goes away.

  • Perry Cole

    They are blaming the pedestrians only to avoid “wasting time in helping the pedestrians. I wonder why?

    They should make the pedestrian crossings or the pathways for the pedestrians to walk on easily instead of blaming them for “dying their own death”.
    Strict actions should also be taken on drivers and others responsible for pedestrians death.

    Easy
    parking deals

  • Irish-American

    The problem IS that people are texting, or not being defensive enough. Pedestrians are constantly walking while texting, listening to loud music, just not paying attention. Watch a bunch of HS kids, they are all in the slouched posture holding a device, with head tilted towards the ground. They step into traffic and take no notice of what is going on around them. Drivers are doing the same thing. Whether behind the wheel or on foot, you need to PAY ATTENTION, put the phone in the backseat and FOCUS, otherwise you are going to be the cause or result of a bad accident.

  • Your second last paragraph hits the nail on the head. Certainly we all share some responsibility for our own safety, and walking around town while drunk is a risk we, wittingly or not, take on ourselves–not only from being hit by cars but robbed, bamboozled, or simply increasing the risk we will trip and fall and hit our heads!

    But there are plenty of things we do that fall short of this kind of risk-taking, and we should not be put at the point of death because we design city transportation systems primarily around MV level of service for long distance travel, while ignoring the risk this puts on vulnerable users, whether they are drunk or sober.

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