LaHood Incorrectly Blames 80 Percent of Pedestrians for Their Own Deaths

Last week, U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood helped NYC transpo commish Janette Sadik-Khan launch a new phase of the “LOOK!” campaign, with pavement markings instructing texting pedestrians to wake the hell up. He made a comment that made its way into his blog post about the event, as well as other media reports on the event, and it caught the attention of Streetsblog NYC’s crack reporting team.

Sadik-Khan and LaHood show off new sidewalk safety markings in NYC, just after LaHood said 80 percent of dead pedestrians were victims of their own jaywalking. Photo: Stephen Miller

What LaHood said was that many pedestrian deaths that occurred nationwide in 2010 were easily preventable, as “nearly 80 percent happened because someone was jaywalking.”

That hits like a ton of bricks, doesn’t it? Drivers dart around in powerful, heavy, dangerous contraptions at high speeds while texting, tweeting, eating, and shuffling through their iPods, and it’s the person hoofing it that’s to blame? Eighty percent of the time?

Turns out he was misquoting some data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which showed that in 2010, 79 percent of pedestrian fatalities occurred at non-intersections. Someone on LaHood’s staff looked at that statistic and figured “jaywalking” was pretty much a synonym for whatever was happening there.

A U.S. DOT spokesperson acknowledged that LaHood was referring to the NHTSA numbers and said, “He was not speaking about the fault or cause of those accidents.”

I don’t know who was ruled at fault in all of those crashes, but I do know for sure that being killed at a non-intersection doesn’t necessarily mean you were jaywalking. Maybe a drunk driver swerved off the road and onto the sidewalk. Or a motorist didn’t look when pulling out of an alley or driveway — U.S. DOT confirmed that curb cuts don’t count as “intersections” in this case. Besides, not all crosswalks are at intersections.

And then there are cases, like that of Raquel Nelson in Georgia, where there simply is no intersection. In suburban areas, you can walk half a mile before you get to an intersection or even a crosswalk. It’s not that no one ever needs to walk across the street, it’s just that planners have ruled that they must take their lives into their own hands when they do.

NHTSA already laid enough blame on pedestrian crash victims with its report, by focusing on how often they were intoxicated. For the secretary himself to say at a major press event that fully four out of five people mowed down by cars were “jaywalking” and therefore at fault is just wrong. It obscures the truth that motorists —  not pedestrians — cause the most havoc on our streets.

29 thoughts on LaHood Incorrectly Blames 80 Percent of Pedestrians for Their Own Deaths

  1. Wow, thanks for taking an easy swing at some low-hanging fruit. Raquel
    Nelson is not relevant–whether she has a convenient intersection nearby
    or not is a local matter, not something you can lay at Ray LaHood’s
    Mr. LaHood, as you well know, has only one thing in mind: keeping people alive.
    How telling that not a single one of the “Related Articles” displayed here asks pedestrians to take responsibility for their own safety. Perhaps Streetsblog should be less concerned with finding fault and share some of the Transportation Secretary’s concern for safety.

  2. The Chicago Department of Transportation and the NHTSA both are blaming pedestrians for crashes and implementing programs that perpetuate it. See here on Grid Chicago:

    The NHTSA email took the same wrongly-directed tone as the City of Chicago’s pedestrian safety campaign (which continues today). It’s the tone that places the responsibility of one’s safety on one’s self, instead of on those who can (and do) inflict the greatest harm. The email’s prominent headline, in large, red letters, was “Watch Where You Walk: Pedestrian Deaths Up in 2010?. The city’s latest contribution is a yellow decal pasted on the sidewalk.

  3. Why are crosswalks at intersections to begin with?  Aren’t intersections the most dangerous place to cross, evidenced by the constant killing of people even when they are in the crosswalk and have the light?

    Crossing mid-block is much safer.  No turning vehicles to worry about, or people trying to “beat the light”.  

    Call it what you will, but I’m crossing mid-block from now on.  

  4. @2618a43f4923350f719e5f0caa704b7a:disqus Correcting the U.S. secretary of transportation is “low-hanging fruit”?


  5. The newspeak here is getting out of control: The LOOK campaign doesn’t blame pedestrians for their own deaths – it encourages them to safeguard their own safety.

    Ultimate responsibility lies with the bearer of the consequences. It won’t make me feel any better if a family member is killed because the driver was drunk versus my loved one was texting – they’re still dead. If this works and saves even one or two lives, all the better.

  6. from our Safe Routes for Seniors campaign we discovered that many seniors go out of their way to cross at mid-block because they feel safer not contending with unyielding, turning traffic.  at least they can see the traffic coming.  until a speeder comes along…

  7. “Ultimate responsibility lies with the bearer of the consequences.” Seriously?!? You sound like Todd Akin expounding on the finer points of rape.

  8. “Ultimate responsibility lies with the bearer of the consequences.”

    Brilliant logic. So if someone shoots me, I should have been more careful.  After all, I bore the consequences.  If my kid is hit by a babysitter, she should have watched out.  After all, she has the black eye. 

    There’s a big difference between saying look out for yourself and “ultimate responsidiblity lies with the bearer of the consequences.”

  9. Is there any research showing that safety campaigns aimed at pedestrians are effective? Seems a little like saying “traffic would be much safer if it weren’t for all those darn people everywhere”. It’s telling that for air and rail traffic, which are very safe, pedestrians are simply banned. But you can’t ban pedestrians from roads.

    Walking is different from cycling or driving. It’s unplanned and spontaneous. I suspect it would be better to build from that rather than trying to change the way people walk.

  10. The Look campaign is a terrible campaign.  Pedestrians already do look for motor vehicles before crossing.  They are not that oblivious or distracted.  Pedestrians are aware that motor vehicles can hurt them and they look.  Some pedestrians don’t look when crossing a bike lane because they know that bicyclists can not hurt them, but they definitely look when crossing where motor vehicles are.  This campaign tells people who are already being careful to “be careful” and is superfluous.

    Worse, the Look signs draw one’s attention to the ground instead of to the street in front.  The Look signs most resemble an artist’s attempt to put his/her stamp on the city and do not inspire the realization that the directive is to look for traffic in a certain direction.

    Additionally, the Look campaign puts the onus/blame on the vulnerable street users who are getting hurt rather than on the drivers who are the dangerous ones and who are the perpetrators of injuries and deaths.

  11. I would like to see those “look” signs at traffic separated bike lanes.
    The frequency with which people react with complete and total shock (including gasps and little screams) when I ride by in such a bike lane – because they were looking down at their fucking iphone – is amazing.
    Pull you heads out of your asses, pedestrians.

    Also, Ray LaHood. While it is not a horrible thing to remind people to look up when crossing the street, but please don’t make shit up. Also, the slightest mention of the absurdly poor enforcement of basic traffic laws in NYC would be nice.

    But I guess elected officials are too busy worshiping at the altar of Ray Kelly to point out in problems in his reign of terror.

  12. Most pedestrians are hurt not because they failed to look, but because a motorist did something unpredictable and illegal such as rapid backing, speeding, running a red light, taking a turn at high speed and failing to yield, etc.

    Pedestrians already look because their safety is at risk.  They will continue to look.  Even if they up their game and look a little harder as a result of this stupid campaign, they will still be injured and killed in the same numbers because the reasons they are being injured and killed are not from lack of looking.  As long as motorists still do high-speed illegal unpredictable behaviors, pedestrians will still be killed and injured no matter how much care they take.

  13. “If this works and saves even one or two lives, all the better.”

    Sure, it might very well save “one or two lives” — nothing to scoff at.

    Yet, an unintended side effect of the “Look!” campaign will certainly be that drivers will be even more empowered to not take responsibility for their own lack of care regarding those more vulnerable than they are, and this will certainly cause many, many more deaths—of even “watchful” pedestrians and cyclists—than the “one or two lives” that this misdirected campaign might save.

    The campaign should be directed at drivers.

  14. LaHood could do wonders for pedestrian (and bicycle) safety by getting rid of the free Right-Turn-on-Red regulation.  It was implemented in a panic during the 1973 Yom Kippur War Oil Crisis “to save energy” and is no longer needed thanks to improvements to overall motor-vehicle efficiencies.

  15. Sad to see two well-meaning public servants doing this. Janet also has form for encouraging NYC cyclists to always wear helmets, despite the inconclusive evidence that this will not make cycling safer and the clear evidence that it discourages cycling. So close to perfect in what they are trying to do but alas no cigar.

    NYC: where gorillas driving extremely hazardous machines can run people over nearly at will and other gorillas in blue will simply arrange for the body to be scraped off of the road like a dead dog. What a nightmarish schizophrenic, car-worshipping dystopia. Which just makes me feel even more amazed by the efforts and success so far of all the advocates and activists trying to change it.

  16. I don’t necessarily agree that 80% of those deaths are the fault of the pedestrians, but I think the campaign to increase awareness among pedestrians is needed. I don’t think it is a good idea to cross the street without at least first looking for traffic, but I often see people walking across the street without turning their heads.

    Some people here would say that all the responsibilities should be on the part of drivers and not the pedestrians. I would like to reject that notion because pedestrians and drivers often are the same people (you can’t separate them like students and teachers, men and women). Poor drivers often are poor pedestrians too. If they don’t look out for cars as pedestrians, they might not look out for pedestrians too as drivers.

  17. How do you jump from the 80% figure being wrong to “the truth that motorists —  not pedestrians – cause the most havoc on our streets”? You state yourself that you don’t know who was ruled at fault in the various cases. Sounds like there’s simply no data, not data showing that motorists were at fault.

  18. Is it really true that in the USA crossing any street, not at a designated pedestrian crossing or intersection, is jaywalking?
    In Australia, you are only jaywalking if you cross within 20 metres of a signalized intersection or marked crossing, or against the lights.
    Any other place is ok, recognising most people aren’t going to walk 500m to get to a crossing just to cross the road.

  19. First, “jaywalking” is a slang term, not a legal standard. Traffic laws in the USA vary from place to place because they are created and enforced by the state and local governments, not the US. Generally it is not illegal to cross a street outside of a crosswalk, but the pedestrian is required to give way to all vehicles, and so would usually get the blame for a collision with one. Some places do make it illegal to cross near traffic signals or other places like you say. Crosswalks generally exist at nearly every intersection whether or not they are marked and motorists are supposed to give way to pedestrians in crosswalks. However, motorists very often don’t obey that law in many areas so do be cautious if you ever come for a visit.

  20. According to LaHood’s math, Rubin Baum, who was killed trying to hail a cab a week ago, was just another jaywalker. You don’t hail cabs in a crosswalk, so he must have been jaywalking when two speeding cars collided and one came flying at him. This 80 year-old scofflaw was able to push his wife out of the way, but he couldn’t save himself from the Mazda spinning across the asphalt before crushing him to death.

    If only he had LOOKED out for himself—right, Mr. LaHood?

    And last spring, UPS worker Mike Rogalle had the audacity to “jaywalk” down the sidewalk, separated from all intersections by poured concrete, which is exactly where an FDNY inspector needed to land his out-of-control GMC SUV at that moment. If only Rogalle had LOOKED, and LEAPED out of the way, this tragedy could have been avoided. He would not be lumped in with the shameful 80% (or 79%, but who’s counting?) of pedestrians who somehow manage to get themselves run over at “non-intersections”.

    Needless to say, no drivers involved in the above killings are expected to be prosecuted, and the investigations conducted are cursory at best. Perhaps we need a fancy LOOK campaign directed at our own local and national transportation bureaucrats?

    And thanks, Streetsblog, for following up on this. Regular readers knew LaHood’s figure was bogus at first glance, but these lies need to be refuted over, and over again.

  21. What LaHood HIDES

    Today U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that for normal drivers without sucky brakes and no steering  the fatality rate for non idiot train drivers was 1 person killed per  917,431,119  vehicle miles traveled. But the kill rate for trains with sucky brakes and no steering 
    …Amtrak trains would kill  2,983 people in the same 917, 431, 119 miles traveled.
    …BNSF Amtrak trains would kill  679  people in the same 917, 431, 119 vehicle miles traveled.
    …CSX  trains would kill  1,354 people in the same 917, 431, 119 vehicle miles traveled.
    …Norfolk Southern  trains would kill  674 people in the same 917, 431, 119 vehicle miles traveled.
    …Union Pacific trains would kill  755 people in the same 917, 431, 119 vehicle miles traveled.
    Secretary Ray LaHood  also said he was covering the railroads mass trail of death and destruction.
    U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood “”” with 1.09 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled”””
    one death in 917,431,119 miles traveled

    1.03 – Overview Charts By Railroad
    CSX—78.6 million total train miles
    116 deaths
    1 death every  every  677,586 miles traveled
    CSX in 917,431,119 train miles has 1354 deaths.
    Amtrak —40.6 million  total train miles
    132 deaths
    1 death per  307,575 miles traveled
    Amtrak in 917,431,119 train miles has 2983 deaths.
    BNSF—169 million total train miles
    125 deaths
    1 death per  1,352,000 miles traveled
    BNSF in 917,431,119 train miles has 679 deaths.
    Norfolk Southern —91.1 million total train miles.
    67  deaths 
    1 death per  1,359,701 train miles traveled
     Norfolk Southern in 917,431,119 train miles has 674 deaths.
    Union Pacific —  160.3 million train miles
    113 deaths
    1 death per  1,214,394 train miles traveled
    Union Pacific  in 917,431,119 train miles has  755 deaths.

  22. Hey @13f7e3521ed0bf85a61c9367d5d6feb2:disqus thanks for your comment. You ask how I “jump from the 80% figure being wrong to ‘the truth that motorists —  not pedestrians – cause the most havoc on our streets’?” My statement is based on nothing more complicated than the fact that a car will cause a hell of a lot more damage than a pedestrian (or cyclist) if it hits something at its normal operating speed. If pedestrians aren’t careful and don’t obey traffic laws or even common sense, it’s still the presence of cars that make a potential run-in a dangerous (and not just annoying) situation.

  23. This is sickening… Blaming the victim is so easy…
    And I am disappointed that the LOOK campaign does not apply to motorists…in NYC. 29% of pedestrians killed were in the crosswalk with the walk sign… What about installing these LOOK signs on the turning lanes ? it’s a good thing we like JSK..

  24. Is this that different than JSK blaming the increase in NYC pedestrian deaths primarily on “break-up” texts?  That doesn’t even use *any* misinterpreted data to fake backing it up.

  25. Tanya,
       You don’t assign any cost to the number of peds / vehicles…just the potential damage of each individual one. By that logic don’t SUVs cause more havoc than cars? And trucks more than SUVs? And tanks more than trucks? And aircraft carriers more than tanks?  

  26. For clarification on pedestrian right of way (I won’t use the term “jaywalking,” which was invented by the automobile industry), PEDS, an advocacy group in Atlanta (where they sorely need one) has a great explanation.

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