The Today Show Completely Botched Its Coverage of America’s Pedestrian Safety Crisis

The Today Show's Kerry Sanders stood in the middle of an enormous intersection in Orlando and blamed distracted pedestrians for the rise in pedestrian deaths.
The Today Show's Kerry Sanders stood in the middle of an enormous intersection in Orlando and blamed distracted pedestrians for the rise in pedestrian deaths.

They say you should never let a crisis go to waste. Well, there’s a life-threatening crisis happening for people who walk in this country, but our national media is wasting this chance to inform the public how to fix it.

A new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association [PDF] estimates that nationwide, there were nearly 6,000 pedestrian deaths in 2016. That’s a 25 percent increase since 2010 and the highest number in two decades.

That was enough to get news outlets like the Today Show to pay attention to pedestrian safety for once. But the Today segment was a victim-blaming disaster, writes Joseph Cutrufo at Mobilizing the Region:

If you ask the Today Show, it’s distracted pedestrians who are to blame, a point they illustrated by showing a video clip of a person being struck by a driver while standing on the sidewalk. The whole segment seems utterly ridiculous, but then again, in a country where more than 90 percent of households own at least one vehicle and more than three-quarters of commuters drive to work, maybe the Today Show’s audience is actually buying it.

Here’s the thing: if you think distracted walking is what’s causing more people being killed, ask yourself what happens when two pedestrians collide. Usually nothing. But that’s not the case when you add cars and trucks to the mix. Motorized vehicles are an “amplifying agent in the coming together of a driver and a pedestrian”; when a pedestrian is struck with a vehicle, there’s a good chance the pedestrian is going to suffer — and the driver is going to walk away unscathed.

Certainly we all have a responsibility to ourselves and our families to avoid taking unnecessary risks with our own lives. But simply being aware of your surroundings isn’t much help when the driver of a two-ton vehicle jumps the curb and runs you over.

Why does the Today Show’s terrible coverage matter? If the problem of 6,000 lives lost each year boils down to victims’ behavior, the way Today implies, that absolves everyone else of any responsibility. We can all get back to living our lives comfortable in the assurance that nothing important has to change.

However, the issue of distraction (among both drivers and walkers) was only a minor point in the GHSA report, which called for a number of reforms, including better engineering and better enforcement of dangerous driving.

We’ll never make progress on pedestrian fatalities if so many streets look like the highway where Sanders stands at the beginning of his report. We need streets where motor vehicles travel at non-lethal speeds and people can cross without taking their lives in their hands.

We should be asking why the United States is doing so much worse than other nations on traffic safety:

pedestrian_fatality_rates_international
Image: International Transport Forum

In the United Kingdom, not only are the streets much safer than in America, but the pedestrian death rate is falling even faster than the overall traffic fatality rate. In other words, British streets are getting safer for walking and driving, but especially for walking.

So instead of another segment blaming people on foot for their own deaths, how about a trip to the UK to investigate how they made a transportation system that’s so much safer than ours?

More recommended reading for today: Seattle Bike Blog says there’s only one major transportation project in Seattle that isn’t threatened by the Trump budget — a bridge project with a terrible design for walking and biking. Modern Cities looks at how mid-century urban renewal and construction of the interstate system devastated a black community in Orlando. And Greater Greater Washington makes the case against a flat fare for transit service across the D.C. Metro system.

  • Sarah

    Grrrr…this makes me so angry! Shall we all email the Today show?

  • Greg Knaddison

    The Today show video is at http://www.today.com/video/smartphones-may-be-to-blame-for-spike-in-pedestrian-deaths-report-says-910017603887

    You can see the pedestrian standing on a sidewalk get hit at about 45 seconds. He’s clearly on the sidewalk and the car is clearly veering off the road. Blaming him for not paying attention is disappointing.

  • JL

    Distracted walking is a narrative being pushed by the auto industry. Much like jaywalking was 100 years ago. There has been a concerted campaign to shift blame from their customers to their victims.

    Even when supposedly promoting safety, the objective is shifting blame. Just look at the terrible caricatures of this Ford video:

  • gneiss

    A disproportionate number of the pedestrians killed by motorists in this country are from the 65+ age group and are children. To suggest that they dying because they are “distracted” by mobile devices is patently ridiculous. As @JL is saying below, this is a concerted campaign by engineers, car manufactures, and public officials to shift the narrative away from what is actually causing the rise in deaths (an increase in driving) in an effort to continue to promote roadway designs with car dominated infrastructure. https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/811888 https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ed385541a34458ff7dce1023fce23fdfbc8f5aa3c6b8e640cb9744e30d22ac23.png

  • betty barcode

    The new spin is “distracted walking.” Because when drivers are entitled to the presumption of innocence, then the presumption of guilt lands on everyone else: cyclists, pedestrians, kids who “dart out.”

    The old spin, seen day in and day out in almost every media outlet, is that whenever a driver does something wrong, shift blame to the vehicle. Thus, this passive voice standby: “A pedestrian was struck by a car” instead of “A driver struck a pedestrian.”. Linguistic leniency leads to judicial leniency.

    If this annoys you as much as it annoys me, use this hashtag to call it out: #DriverNotCar.

  • Dan

    They didn’t mention the connection between texting while driving and pedestrian injury. I’m trying to think of the right analogy to highlight the folly to someone uninitiated to the StreetsBlog worldview.

  • Dan

    Hate crime against Christians is on the rise across the US, Tom, and these funny little cross necklaces are to blame.

  • SDGreg

    It’s all about the vehicles and their drivers. If there were no vehicles, there would be none of these deaths.

  • Vooch

    it’s always those 85 year olds darting into motor traffic

  • Walter Crunch

    How about we simply pass a law that states anytime a pedestrian is injured or killed by a car, then the driver shall receive a reckless driving ticket. Let’s just start there.

  • Walter Crunch

    Damn grandmas

  • BrownBrown

    How about we investigate every crash resulting in serious injury or death as a serious crime.

  • mortacai

    Perhaps because crimes require proof of criminal intent and very few drivers intend to kill anyone?

  • Brian Howald

    No they don’t. Negligent homicide is a crime without intent to kill.

  • mortacai

    That’s involuntary manslaughter, which requires either reckless endangerment or the commission of an illegal act.

  • JL

    Don’t forget “the car lost control”

  • Tabloid journalism. What the study said was “A more recent factor contributing to the increase in pedestrian fatalities may be the growing use of smart phones by all road users, which can be a significant source of distraction for both drivers and pedestrians”.

    Note the phrase “may be”. Authors Richard Retting and Sam Schwartz say the rise “may be” due to phone use. No data to support that, but the media loves to run with stuff like this. The masses buy it because so many drivers are convinced every single pedestrian is blundering into the street with a phone in their hand, and that fits the narrative most drivers want to believe….that crashes are the fault of pedestrians and drivers are largely blameless.

  • We just finished our legislative session. We tried to get a bill through that would toughen penalties on distracted drivers who kill or maim. Instead, a Democratic legislator tried to substitute the idea of a mandatory helmet law. This from a member of the Democratic majority that tried (and failed) to pass a gun background check law. I sent an email to the House Judiciary Committee Chair that the idea of a mandatory helmet law to “protect” vulnerable users of our traffic system was akin to a law making it mandatory for kids to wear bulletproof vests to school to protect against active shooters, rather than addressing why people become active shooters. Blame the victims, sure.

    Admittedly Vision Zero is a topic more complicated than penalties, and primarily depends on better engineering to protect people against their own failure modes. We are doing little of that, either.

    As far as the Today Show? I am afraid that much of what passes for journalism in the US is a race to the intellectual bottom.

  • war_on_hugs

    You don’t think people would drive slower if there were harsher consequences for reckless driving, of which speed is a primary factor? Sure, no one intends to strike a pedestrian or cyclist, but many are cavalier about driving speeds, even though research shows that even a small jump (e.g. from 25 MPH to 35 MPH) drastically increases the chances of serious injury and death from a collision.

  • Proving carelessness is hard but what we tried to do in New Mexico was elevate penalties for those who injure or kill others after being convicted of careless driving. Investigating every crime resulting in serious injury or death as a serious crime simply doesn’t work and as mortacai says, assumes motives that are not there.

    We need to attack the reasons we drive badly, and that includes terrible designs by DOTs and the unregulated proliferation of driver distraction devices.

  • The cavalier attitude most harmful is the one exhibited by many transportation departments, which build roads with high design speeds. You can’t blame the driver for everything.

  • Rambo

    Most pedestrians crashes are distracting JWaking even along with alcohol and chemicals! But all we try to do is punish safe drivers with lower speed limits! So we can bring Revenue to the states and insurance industry’s!

  • war_on_hugs

    I agree, and that’s definitely the more important and impactful approach. However, some people are all too happy to drive recklessly even beyond what the street is designed for.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    Unfortunately, we are having a repeat of the late 60s and early 70s. Automobile related fatalities peaked when the Baby Boomers peaked. Automobiles themselves and drunk driving awareness have greatly lowered the fatality rate. However, nothing beats experience and the patience that comes with age.

    Currently the US population distribution by age is tri-modal. There are peaks at 51, 46, and 25. I, as a mid-fifties Baby Boomer and my 10-year junior Gen Xer, have gained experience behind the wheel. We know when making a left-turn to watch for pedestrians entering the crosswalk (regardless if we a turn arrow or the pedestrian has a Don’t Walk). We know if the car in the next lane is slowing at an unsignalized intersection, they are slowing for either a left turning car or pedestrian in a crosswalk. We know to slow down and yield.

    Until the Millennial Generation gains driving experience, the fatality rate will increase. similar to the Baby Boomers, it will most likely peak within five years, and then slowly decline until the next population bulge hits adulthood. Hopefully by then automobiles will be fully autonomous, and people will be riding in cars as opposed to driving cars.

  • Guy Ross

    oh dear.

  • Jason

    Aha, drunk walking, clearly the biggest menace to society!

  • Rambo

    Drunk waking with a Cellphone is only a menace to the drivers that hit them!

  • qatzelok

    Exactly. ‘Reckless endangerment’ could be attributed to many (most?) drivers, but especially to the DOTs that have designed our road systems. A few class action suits against DOTs could help “start a conversation.”

  • qatzelok

    It’s not just disappointing. It underscores the role of commercial media in telling lie$ that put our lives at risk.

  • Hit them

    You’re a complete hack. Most pedestrians who are killed or hurt have no one to blame but themselves. Thank god the legislature is wise to this and doesn’t “toughen” penalties for stupid pedestrians who walk out in front of moving cars.

  • Hitthem

    Grrrrr. Oh Sarah you have every right to be upset. Go ahead and let’s all email the today show to tell them what a terrible show they are, for reporting FACTS that you deem FALSE. Grrrrrrrrr

  • Lara

    The Today Show reported facts. Angie, you, as usual, don’t like FACTs and throw a hissy fit and think that FACTS are somehow FALSE. Until PEDESTRIANS put THEIR phones down and PAY ATTENTION to their surroundings, THEY will continue to be hit and killed. It’s not a driver’s fault if someone walks out in front of them. Pedestrians need to take responsibility for themselves.

  • Sarah

    Yes, I am upset as a ped/cyclist who has experienced countless near misses at the hand of careless drivers. I can’t believe we’re getting this narrative of blaming walkers now that echoes the anti-bicycle sentiments. I’ve been walking for transportation for 40+ years, here and in Europe. Since so few people walk here, drivers simply aren’t aware. Try walking for transportation for a week or so. Worst places are intersections, where drivers turning don’t look or speed through, as well as stoplights and stop signs they run through. The other day my granddaughter and I were crossng a busy street WITH the walk signal and a woman nearly rammed us making a left turn. She started up too fast and either didn’t look or didn’t care that we and at least one other were crossing. And shall we talk about drivers being distracted by their phones?

  • Yaro

    So you are saying American people are dumb given that pedestrian deaths are falling in countries like UK while deaths in US are soaring? Or maybe people in UK don’t have money to buy phones?

  • Kenny Easwaran

    It’s not a driver’s fault if a pedestrian standing peacefully on the sidewalk looking at their phone happens to somehow end up under the wheels of the car!

  • Anne A

    Most pedestrians who are killed or hurt have no to blame except the drivers who hit them!

  • Anne A

    And #CrashNotAccident.

  • Anne A

    My example from this week – seeing a blind man with a white cane crossing a busy downtown street – in the crosswalk, with the walk signal, along with many other pedestrians. He was moving slower than the rest but still crossing legally when a turning driver cut him off and nearly hit him.

  • Sarah

    Perfect example.

  • John SFO

    Bravo! Well-said! If motorists were as careless as many pedestrians & bicyclists, they would be getting charged with hitting cyclists & pedestrians much more frequently.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Pedestrian Deaths Edge Down, Following Unexplained 3-Year Rise

|
After three years of rising pedestrian deaths in America, there’s some good news this week about the safety of people on foot. Pedestrian deaths fell 8.7 percent in the first six months of 2013 compared to the same period the previous year, according to a report from the Governor’s Highway Safety Association. That means about […]