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. OK so long as you include the speed of pedestrians and cyclists in your 85th percentile calculation. On a street with a little of both, the 85th percentile might be 20 or 25 mph. On streets with lots of pedestrians it might be 5 mph.

  2. You you think a judge was wrong in calling them 3-card monte, which means he feels they are a scam? How about all the errors documented in Maryland, is that OK? If the cams were 100% accurate, speed limits were set correctly, and only bad drivers were cited, no problem. That will never happen, as this is about money.

    Locally, the cops drive faster than everyone else I see, but I never hear of them citing each other. This proves the limits are bogus.

  3. Nobody is disputing that it’s not a good idea to look before crossing, even if you have the right-of-way. The larger point here is if drivers did what they were required to do, whether you look or not would be moot. Also, consider that not everyone crossing a street has the faculties of an adult. A 5 year old isn’t going to look for cars. They’re just going to cross. That’s why car speeds should be low any place you have lots of pedestrians. People make mistakes. That includes both pedestrians and motorists. The consequences of such mistakes shouldn’t be a death sentence if you’re on foot.

  4. A 5 year old has parents who should be watching their kids. They had fun making them, now take care of them. When I was young I was taught safety by my parents. I walked, rode bikes, etc. Never had problems. Then again, when you look at society today, you see why we have so many problems. Many people cannot take care of a pet rock. Too hard for them.

  5. If cars slow the f down, then there wouldn’t be huge speed variances. Like I said, if you’re in a hurry drive on a highway. I don’t understand what the obsession is with going fast on local streets. Your attitude is that it’s fine killing people just so you get where you’re going 5 or 10 minutes faster.

  6. OK, and what about adults with limited mental faculties, or perhaps those in poor physical condition who can’t jump out of the way of drivers who bully them out of the way? Also, all it takes is one second for a kid to dart into traffic. Even the most attentive parents might not be able to stop them. The fact is people screw up, and people will get hit by cars. By reducing speeds, at least those people won’t die or get seriously hurt.

  7. I said that cars, bikes, and walkers move at different speeds, which is bad, and creates conflicts. The simple truth is that city roads are not meant for bikes, and people who walk are safe if crosswalks and signals are setup right. Other countries remove walkers from car areas, but we do not want to spend the money. If you ever saw the underground crossings, you would love them.

    If you incorrectly post speed limits, it creates the bad speed variances.

  8. So you seek to cause cars to crash into each other with improperly posted speed limits? I want to avoid any type of crashes, not mitigate damages. Let’s prevent them.

  9. City roads aren’t meant for bikes? News to me. Bikes are the best way to get around cities. They’re almost always faster than cars, they’re cheap, and they don’t pollute. Maybe cars don’t belong on city roads? They seem to slow everyone else down and they also kill people.

    Which countries remove walkers from car areas? Underground pedestrian crossings were used for a while in Europe but eventually they just banned or severely restricted car use in places with lots of pedestrians. There’s no good reason you need car access everywhere.

    Incidentally, in places where we can’t ban cars altogether I’m all for putting different kinds of traffic on separate levels but we just don’t have that kind of money. We don’t even have money to repair potholes.

  10. No, you want to avoid car-car crashes. Any time you allow higher motor vehicle speeds you’ll have more car-pedestrian and car-bicycle crashes. Moreover, those crashes will have far worse outcomes.

    I don’t see why low speed limits will make cars crash into each other. You can enforce the speed limits with GPS so the vehicles can’t exceed them. That won’t make the state money, so it should avoid the complaints you have about speed camera enforcement. The car just won’t go faster than the speed limit even with both feet on the accelerator.

  11. I do not actually have eyes in the back of my head. When I turn midcrossing to see if anything’s coming right at me even though nothing was coming towards me when I entered the crosswalk, I lose the ability to see anything that was going parallel to my course but intends to turn THROUGH the crosswalk.

    You will note the ‘when’. I’m personally paranoid about streets. It is not reasonable to expect that everyone is the same level of paranoid, and the same paranoia that might make me more likely to detect an UNLIKELY threat also means that I’m less likely to be looking WHERE I AM GOING or at the COMMON threats. I’m not sure that that’s actually an improvement.

    Further, not everyone can hear at all times – what happens WHEN (there’s that ‘when’ again!) multiple people cross at the same crossing and one of them is having a loud conversation? Someone who’s focused on their watch screen and unable to see ONE kid in the crosswalk is not magically going to gain a 180-degree field of vision just because there are five kids in the crosswalk instead of just one. Some people can’t hear ever. Some people can’t see. A few can’t see or hear.

    It makes more sense to require a higher standard of responsibility from the person piloting several hundred kilos of metal and plastic that they had to 1) choose to purchase and 2) obtain special training and proficiency certificates to be permitted to use than it does to expect that all pedestrians will act in a way that we both know they DON’T.

  12. Technically speaking, hurling insults only proves the ability to hurl insults – it does not prove the inability to make a rational argument.

    Please do not embarrass my operating system by making irrational arguments under its name.

  13. Actually, some schools in California have flexible schedules – running classes from 7AM to 5PM allows you to fit more students into the same number of classrooms. As a result, there are students with full class loads who nonetheless are out of school, on a normal day, well before 2PM, or whose free period is something weird like 1:30-2:15.

    Ideally city planning should try to arrange the streets around schools so they naturally encourage slow driving, but automobile pilot training needs to accomodate the streets as they are rather than as they should be.

  14. The police argument: we’re trained to drive REALLY WELL, and a well-trained driver can safely go faster than an untrained driver. This is true.

    The anti-police argument: they don’t like following the speed limit any more than anyone else, speed cameras assume a cop’s plates indicate they had a Valid Excuse For Violating The Speed Limit, and who’s going to give a cop a ticket? This is also true.

    he modern penalty structure was devised under the assumption that a speeding automobile pilot only gets caught occasionally, so the fine also covers the fifty-odd times that a cop wasn’t looking at them going 70 in a 60-kph zone. If we’re actually going to start making traffic laws things that people have to obey at all times we should take that into account. We also need to reconfigure the law to more effectively block conflict of interest – traffic camera vendors should not receive a percentage of the fines as an administration fee, for instance.

  15. I don’t know LinuxGuy/RichLL enough to know if he does anything worse than post deliberately obtuse and inflammatory stuff, but it’s not JUST him – fash groups have a history of attempting to punish those who disagree with them on the bottom of the Internet with real-world action.

    Doing away with privacy because of trolls will calm the least worst of them, but it gives the worst of them new weapons.

  16. If she dies, just put the guy on a rack and televise his breaking. Maybe that will slow the narcissistic autoistas down.

  17. Just to provide some international context: how this is governed in Dutch Law. In these cases it makes a difference between fault and liability, especially where children are involved.

    Cyclists or pedestrians are seen as ‘vulnerable road users’. Because they are vulnerable to traffic, the law has a special arrangement in the event of a collision with a motor vehicle. The driver is liable for the pedestrian’s damage even if the driver is not at fault.
    The only exception being ‘force majeure’, basically meaning: even if the driver was prepared for the unexpected, he still could not have prevented the accident. This doesn’t apply often.

    For kids younger under 14, the driver is always liable, because traffic awareness of children is not yet well developed below that age.

    Basically, if you are commandeering a huge chunk of metal, you need to be aware that the consequences of your errors can be really grave.

  18. Well, I for one am glad that my organization’s coverage of this tragedy has sparked so much interest, and lively discussion. 10 years ago, this was barely a debate that anyone cared about.

  19. I think a better way to enforce speed limits is to use GPS (or perhaps roadside transponders) to transmit the speed limit to the vehicle, and then the vehicle is governed to no more than the speed limit. If even a small percentage of vehicles were so equipped, it would have the effect of keeping all traffic at the speed limit. Moreover, it would overcome any objections that it’s solely for revenue since the government wouldn’t make a dime. It would also free police to go after aggressive drivers instead of routine speed enforcement.

    I’m even willing to throw a carrot to drivers here. These devices would only function on local streets. On limited access highways you would still be free to exceed the speed limit. If drivers are going to drive fast, I’d much rather they do so where they can’t kill pedestrians or cyclists.

  20. The other modification would be an “emergency” button that a driver could hit to disable the speed governor. This would be used if someone needed to speed to a hospital.

    Of course, the police would be alerted at the pressing of this button, and would meet the driver at the hospital in order to verify the emergency.

  21. It would stop people from walking out into traffic. What is so important anyway? Can’t it wait, or stop to do it.

  22. I’m not sure you quite understand the issue here. The girl, as a pedestrian, has a right to be there. The car does not. According to the laws in most states, you only have a legal privilege to drive. Her absent-mindedness notwithstanding, that car was required to yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian — no matter what. You are blaming the victim.

  23. I replied to your comment that most people walking are playing with electronic toys. I asked what is so important to be doing 24/7, and remarked that if people ceased playing with the toys, they could pay attention. Most people are not the President, and do not need to be available 24/7 for urgent matters.

  24. Speed limits are maximums for ideal conditions. Drivers are always obligated (at least in California) to drive at a SAFE speed, so that they avoid hitting others (among other issues). Both drivers in your scenario are obligated to drive slowly enough to avoid a collision, regardless of the posted speed limit.

  25. The little girl was annoying but the driver was completely at fault. I hate bad drivers more than anything but people who walk and look at their phone at the same time are way up there

  26. First, let me tell you that he’s not just LinuxGuy and RichLL, that he has more than a dozen identities through many Disqus accounts, and switches names once many people realize who he is. So it’s hard to block him as he will just pop up in a new sockpuppet identity. His normal routine is to post a third of the posts in any thread he gets into (steering the comments off-topic and making many would-be commenters who might have something valid to say give up) sometimes even using multiple identities in a single thread, backing up his replies and upvoting his other id. Many, many people have tried to get him to stop – one site actually blocked him under his RoyTT identity: http://sfist.com/2014/10/27/the_time_out_corner_the_people_have.php

    I am not familiar with the term ‘fash groups’, but I can guess that it means ‘fascist groups’; not sure what you mean by fascist: is it the fascists that the left is calling the current administration, or the term the right is calling all the left, trying to deflect and to convince the gullible alt-right that the lefties are all aligned with the radical splinter group Antifa (short for anti-fascist BTW).

    But all that aside, I think you might be misinterpreting the difference between a private and a public profile on Disqus: neither type of profile means that others can see your real name, your address or phone number; nothing about yourself outside of Disqus: it rather is the difference between being able to read the commenter’s previous posts (public) and being blocked from seeing them (private).

    In my mind (and, I think, in Joe R.’s) it is informative to be able to read a commenter’s posts before – so that one can choose to reply because the comment is not from some insane logorrheic. And not everyone who has a private profile is a troll, but every troll I have come across does.

  27. The little girl was annoying

    . Sure, you know how everybody hates people who want to cross a street. WTF?

  28. The 85th percentile argument is a cherished piece of folklore for motorists who want to justify speeding. It is based on long-obsolete research from 1964; there’s a recent Streetsblog article about it:
    I wrote a lengthy comment there:

    The research was done on rural highways and ignored road users other than motorists and if one is being extremely charitable, one would say it makes some amount of sense on limited-access highways that ban everything but cars. But it is completely inapplicable to the case at hand.

  29. ever so slowly crossing the street while chasing Pikachu on your phone is freaking annoying … Much like your ugly face

  30. Thanks so much for letting everyone know that you are actually the nasty crackpot I suspected you are from your first post.

  31. I have heard from several commenters more knowledgeable than I that flagging is useless in a case like this: I think the post has to be more than just trolling, but must be threatening, or using racial epithets, or some other such flagrant thing. I tried blocking him, but then I got lines and lines of ‘this user is blocked, that was just annoying as his posts. I don’t see any way of getting people not to engage with him, between the newbies, the people who don’t recognize his new sockpuppets, and those that know who they are arguing with, but continue anyway, I don’t see a solution.

    The best I can think of is what I do: call him out with each new identity, warn people who this creepy and horrible commenter is, and otherwise ignore his trolling.

  32. What a disgusting comment. So looking at your phone merits spending the rest of your life with a severe disability?

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