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America Walks

Op-Ed: Sure, Blame the Drivers — But the City is At Fault

A still from a terrifying recent video by the City of Garden Grove, Calif. Watch the whole thing on Facebook.

Mike McGinn
Mike McGinn
Mike McGinn

The City of Garden Grove, California made headlines recently for doing a sting operation for failure to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk and handed out 89 citations in an evening. The video has been shared hundreds of times on social media, and with good reason. A pedestrian in a high visibility vest waits mid-crosswalk as cars fly by, then the motorcycle cops slide out from a side road to nab the wrongdoers, time and again.

The video is both mesmerizing and terrifying. It feels like the pedestrian might get nailed by a high-speed driver at any moment.

Of course, the comment threads for the video are a mess, devolving into arguments about reckless drivers, reckless pedestrians and predatory cops just trying to raise money. But the real villain here is barely mentioned at all: a multi-lane street designed to encourage speeding, sending clear signals to drivers that they have priority over any other user.

Particularly terrifying is the sequence where a driver in one lane stops for the pedestrian, shielding him from view from a rapidly passing car in the adjacent lane. This street is designed for disaster — and even the painted crosswalk can’t overcome all the signals to drivers that it’s clear sailing ahead.

The sad reality about what it means to be a walker in America is that even an entire fleet of police motorcycles with lights flashing is going to have limited deterrent effect. The 89 citations that Garden Grove handed out that day simply won't make their streets safer for long. Sure, a few drivers may be more careful for a short period, but then human nature will eventually take over. The road looks fine for moving fast, so drivers' peripheral vision will narrow (as it always does at higher speeds), and soon enough, they'll hit the gas. By the time they finally do see the pedestrian in the crosswalk, it simply won't be realistic to go from 40 miles per hour to zero.

At America Walks, we’d bet you that the police could go to that spot a month from now and hand out another 89 citations. And they could probably do the same at crosswalks all over town.

And let’s not forget one more hazard: that one of those stops might lead to a dangerously escalating encounter between an officer and a BIPOC, as happened to Sandra Bland or Philando Castile.

None of this is to pick on Garden Grove, specifically. This street design is endemic to virtually all of our nation’s cities and towns. This design philosophy, which prioritizes car speed and throughput over safety, is the reason why we have a pedestrian safety crisis that has seen pedestrian deaths increase 45% over the last decade. It’s why America Walks is calling on Secretary Pete to fix the MUTCD, the manual that controls so much about how our streets are built.

When you have a type of infrastructure that is proven to fail again and again, it’s time to fix the infrastructure. No amount of enforcement can work in that situation.

We know how to slow down drivers and create safe crossings.  That’s a choice cities and towns must make if they truly value safety.

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