Why You Shouldn’t Trust Media Coverage That Blames Pedestrians for Getting Struck

When a speeding driver severely injured 14-year-old Kelly Williams, police and the local media blamed her.
When a speeding driver severely injured 14-year-old Kelly Williams, police and the local media blamed her.

When a driver struck a 14-year-old girl in a crosswalk outside her Philadelphia-area high school last week, the local media pounced. Headlines highlighted police accounts that said the victim, Kelly Williams, was using FaceTime on her phone at the time of the crash.

Here’s how the local CBS affiliate led its story:

A 14-year-old girl was injured Wednesday afternoon in Abington when police say she walked right into the path of a passing car — because she was video chatting.

The implications were clear: Williams was at fault. She was irresponsible. No need to give any thought to how the driver’s actions contributed to the collision.

Local police went on to lecture people about the dangers of distraction while walking. “I just hope people will realize the dangers of being engrossed in your cellphone, or your tablet, or whatever you’re carrying, and not paying attention to what you’re doing,” said Abington Police Chief John Livingston.

A week later, Williams is still in the hospital recovering from severe injuries. And a very different account of what happened is emerging.

According to a report by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the man who struck Williams, James H. Clark IV, 32, was driving 21 mph over the speed limit — 46 in a 25 mph zone. In addition, she was “half way across a marked crosswalk” at an unsignalized intersection when she was struck — entirely in the legal right-of-way.

The driver told police he was in a hurry, glanced at his watch, looked up and saw a flash, hitting Williams. He is being charged with “reckless endangerment” and assault, and law enforcement is belatedly sending a much better message.

“Distracted driving and speed are a deadly combination,” District Attorney Kevin Steele told the Inquirer. “Drivers owe it to the community and to our young people to exercise extra caution and pay special attention to their surroundings in and around our schools.”

Still, why was the original account so wrong? Rather than wait until all the facts were gathered, police and local TV stations chose to assign blame to a gravely injured child. Wagging your finger at kids for using FaceTime must make for good ratings.

Leonard Bonarek at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia says this kind of reporting is far too common when a driver hits a pedestrian:

The coverage of 6ABC.com is unfortunately quite common in the media: implying that a 14-year-old who was walking exactly where she was supposed to be walking, in an area that most have been trained since before they can remember to believe is “safe,” was at fault for the tragedy. Many youth today don’t watch broadcast TV, and evening news viewership trends older every year, but treating this tragedy as a “kids these days” type of story does considerable disservice to our public discourse, while also causing additional pain to a family that must be suffering tremendously, and to a youth who may never fully recover from this incident.

More recommended reading today: The City Fix shares new research showing the productivity advantage of urban density, as well as how housing and transportation policy can ensure the benefits are broadly distributed. And the State Smart Transportation Initiative explains a new report that attempts to draw a clear distinction between the kind of congestion that helps cities and the kind that damages them.

103 thoughts on Why You Shouldn’t Trust Media Coverage That Blames Pedestrians for Getting Struck

  1. The GWB North Walkway is not accessible to the disabled and is pretty perilous to cyclists. There are 173 steep steps across the span and every single one of them is a rusted steel plate (some with gaping holes in them) – a major concern is that most cyclists wear cleats that are a slip hazard on those steps. Meanwhile the bicycle channels are all but useless.

    The awful state of the North Walkway is one of the reasons local transportation and cycling organizations petitioned the PA heavily to fully rebuild it.

    Now, with a day’s notice, two months of safe access to one of the East Coast’s busiest cycling routes during ideal cycling weather is wiped out.

    In the meantime, people will be free to jump from the similarly short railing on the North Walkway. And then when it’s done, there are other bridges nearby with jumping access. Nobody is “more safe” because of this project.

  2. Just out of curiosity, did you mean to post this elsewhere? Although I do agree with you and I think they should have made the necessary repairs to the north before closing the south.

  3. Yes, we cannot have the truth getting out at any time that pedestrians and bicyclists cause many crashes they are involved in. Was the special 25 mph zone in effect at the time? The signs I saw in reports about this were not the best, so nobody would know. There did not seem to be flashing lights.

    When did a bike group become an expert on car traffic safety? When you read their policies, it is obvious they are wrong in many cases.

  4. I live near this area and know it well. I drive that road at least once a week. The normal posted speed is 25. When school is in, it’s lowered to 15. The road is often used as a bypass to get around the heavy traffic along York Road/Route 611. It is a two lane road with broad shoulders and perfectly straight. It is all-too-easy to exceed the speed limit.

    The article stated that she was HALFWAY across the road and in a crosswalk. I don’t care if she was doing cartwheels blindfolded, the driver was at fault.

  5. Anyone who complains about ped/bike rights in this country has certainly never gone without a car for a substantial period of time. It’s a jungle out there and the herd of cars are eager to run you down.

  6. There are plenty of arguments to suggest that the 85th percentile is not warranted either. Why should it be the 85th percentile and not the 75th, for instance? Your argument relies on plenty of assumptions and assertions that allow you to hide behind technical language and provide the false appearance of objectivity and correctness.

    Policies are wrong too, huh? Perhaps you disagree, but categorizing them as wrong sure sounds like you are doing exactly what you are complaining about bike groups doing. What is wrong about these policies? Your post admittedly has poor info, yet you felt perfectly comfortable arriving a set of pretty flimsy conclusions. Practice what you preach, maybe?

  7. School speed limits are in effect whenever kids are present, regardless of time. You’re making huge assumptions yourself, as evidenced by the reply to your comment from a person that actually knows that area. And regardless of the posted limit, she was halfway into the crosswalk. The driver should have seen her. Stop making excuses for bad and dangerous driving.

  8. “was driving 21 mph over the speed limit — 46 in a 25 mph zone.”

    This is not an uncommon occurrence on the side street that I live on.
    Speeding really need to be seen as a serious offense similar to drunk

  9. No, there are certain days and hours for school zones, which is why the better ones have the flashing lights. You can’t read the size 1 font and a million lines of text on the other ones. There are not 24/7/365 zones. You also think people walking have no responsibility? I see them walking out in from of cars all the time. Either walkers do not care, are on the phone, or something else.

  10. Because the 85th is best-practice engineering and in the law. Not hiding, only talking science and real-world experience. When I read some of the bike positions, they clearly contradict real data and the experiences of other cities. I will give one example. They love speed cameras. These devices were called 3-card monte by a judge and were shown to make a pile of errors. Now, when using devices like this is promoted, how can it be ignored, especially if it is brought to their attention? Willful ignorance?

  11. Did I say that? In this case, if the report is correct, the driver is 100% liable for his actions.

    Pedestrians have the right of way.

    She was in a crosswalk

    He was going almost double the speed limit and wasn’t paying attention.

    How is she liable in any way for what happened to her?

  12. Most speed limits are not set correctly, but I was not there to observe what occurred. I do wonder if she tried to move out of the way? You can see and hear cars far away in most cases.

  13. Do you even understand the phrase “right of way”? That’s not “doing as you please,” it’s crossing the street when you have the legal right to cross. Motorists are legally obliged to slow at such crossings and give way. Do you need diagrams?

  14. Then why do people walk out in front of cars all the time? See it all the time. Many people think they are entitled, unwise, or are distracted. When I walk, I let the cars go with a wave from me, then I walk. If the car drivers wave me to go, then I walk. I am polite and do not wish to challenge a 4000 pound vehicle. I will lose.

  15. She didn’t “walk out in front of a car,” she exercised her legal right of way on a pedestrian crossing and was hit by a reckless driver who not only failed to yield but was speeding too.

  16. The fact that you dislike speed cameras pretty much says it all.

    If there are problems with the funding model, or the enforcement model, or whatever then fix the problematic issues—but there’s zero excuse for getting rid of the cameras themselves, and many reasons not to.

    However many drivers latch onto almost any excuse they can find, no matter how flimsy, to rail against speed cameras, because in the end, speed cameras serve to reveal the truth about extreme driver irresponsibility, and that’s one thing most drivers are deathly afraid of.

  17. How often do you stop in the MIDDLE of the street to look for oncoming traffic?

    Most advice for pedestrians says to walk slowly across the street, NOT to suddenly change vector, because in the usual case – driver is actively trying to avoid pedestrian – trying to run out of the way can often lead to you running into the same place the driver is swerving.

  18. That’s flawed logic – while your anecdata prove that humans are capable of dangerously reckless behavior, you have failed to provide any evidence that piloting several hundred kilograms of metal and plastic capable of attaining speeds 6 times faster than a moderately skilled Olympian can manage prevents reckless behavior.

  19. Please realize that this is the Great Troll, RichLL himself that you are arguing with, so, no need to waste your time. He is also posting as Red Monk, Whateveryousay, and now has resurrected his LinuxGuy fake id.

  20. In general I’m a proponent of properly set speed limits. The 85th percentile generally works in places where traffic is 100% motor vehicles and also rarely needs to stop. That would be limited access highways and rural roads.

    In places where you have pedestrians or cyclists you often need to set the limit lower than the speed drivers might feel comfortable at for safety reasons. The idea here is that collisions between motor vehicles and vulnerable users WILL happen regardless, so speeds should be low enough to prevent death or serious injury.

    Bottom line, if you want to drive fast, go on a highway. There’s no good reason for speeds higher than 20 or 25 mph on local streets.

  21. Why do people walk in front of cars? Maybe because they rightly feel that one person in a car shouldn’t be allowed to delay a bunch of pedestrians? Why should one person matter more than many? Any place you have pedestrians, cyclists, and motor vehicles the former two should have right-of-way over motor vehicles all the time. More advanced places than the US treat motorists like guests in central cities, meaning they have to drive very slowly, and defer to non-motorists. That’s fair when pedestrians and cyclists constitute the majority users by far.

  22. Not if you’re absorbed in a video chat. I remember blowing past my exit on the Palisades Parkway while one the phone (hands free) and not realizing it until I was 12 miles up the road.

  23. Oh my god, you’re right!

    Pro tip: if someone is being shockingly obtuse on a Streetsblog comment thread, take a quick second to click through to their Disqus profile page. If they have more than 2200 posts and their comment history is private, guess what, it’s RichLL again. Forewarned is forearmed.

    I can’t for the life of me understand why Disqus seems to allow unlimited user name changes. They should at least make people actually create a new account when they want to troll as multiple “people.”

  24. In California, they are in effect “When Children are Present”.

    Unfortunately the local Courts (Judges) interpret this as being only valid during school hours when school is in session which does not include the after-school activities period or any weekend school-related activities.

    Since Judges in California will not uphold tickets written outside of the 7am to 3 pm window M-F, most Police Departments have given up on enforcement of the “When Children are Present” rule.

  25. I also vehemently disagree with their allowing a user to make their comment history private. If you post on public forums, your comment history should be there for all to see. Doing this lets people more quickly find out if someone is a troll. In fact, other than being a troll or a spammer, I can’t think of a good reason someone would want to make their comment history private.

  26. So a driver needs to pay attention to flashing lights but not a person right in front of him? If you don’t see “it” (whatever you hit), then you’re allowed to plow right through?

  27. I’ve talked to cops in San Mateo County, and they use both the “when children are present” (anytime) or likely to be present (hours of school) rule to issue tickets for speeding here.

  28. Agreed: it should not be allowed. And even worse, they should not allow multiple people to be able to use the same name. He sometimes will assume the identity of those of us who call him out: he was Stuart for a while, Parque_Hundido, and he stole my name and posted truly insane rants (eg: https://thepointsguy.com/2017/07/british-airways-four-week-strike/).

    I think the thing to do is to reply to one of his sockpuppets citing that sockpuppet’s name in the text. Then, when he changes his name, you can scroll down your comments, use cntrl-F and find where you have used that name, and you will see that the name you replied to has been changed. He may not know, or may not care, that every previous post he made has his name changed to his new id.

  29. There is one good reason that some make their profile private, and that is that RichLL, the troll we are discussing, sometimes stalks people who call him out. As I said to Drew, he will even take the name of the person he hates for calling him out, and will make insane posts under that name. He has changed his RichLL sockpuppet to my name in an attempt to embarrass me (it didn’t work). But RichLL does seem to make all of his sockpuppets have a private profile.

    But in principle, I agree with you that profiles should not be private.

  30. Plus: newer thinking is showing up with the idea that the 85th percentile is hogwash, created by drivers, so they can go as fast as possible, but with little concern for safety. I am seeing in the news, more and more (great) examples of the speed limit being reduced.

  31. OMG, RichLL! Upvoting yourself is SO tacky, even for a hideous troll like yourself. Have you NO shame, no sense of honor?

  32. Why do the federal government and most state DOT’s use the 85th as the standard then? That seems to mean all roads. It has decades of data.

  33. They are only allowed here during the period of time kids are dropped off and picked up, plus some extra pad time. Otherwise, it turns into a cash cow of pulling over safe drivers, and causes problems. The better zones have a speed limit that is lit, and flashing yellow lights when in effect.

    There are not many kids walking around at 2 PM in California, as they should be in class, so that sounds like a ticket fest out there, if accurate

  34. I am 100% opposed to anyone using electronic devices on or near a road, including headphones. The law should apply to people driving, walking, and biking.

  35. It is still stupid to walk out in front of a moving vehicle. I do not do it. Cars should have the right of way, but even so, do you wish to get hurt? I do not. The law does says other modes of transportation have the right of way. This should not give them the ability to abuse this right, though. Other countries also have underground pedestrian tunnels, delayed pedestrian signals, etc. Ever been to Europe? I still find it ironic a person could not see or hear a car coming.

  36. So you would not see or hear a car coming? You should be able to react well before a car is near. I always monitor my surroundings.

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