Thursday, April 2

One month, four pedestrians down

Charlottesville is a relatively small city, so when four pedestrians are struck on city streets within one month it causes eyebrows to raise. What's going on here?

The Hook newspaper has done a fine public service by calling attention to each of these cases, even if the details are sometimes not available. On the 7th day of March, a truck hit a pedestrian by the Omni hotel, right off the downtown mall. On the 16th day, a pedestrian was hit in the Belmont neighborhood on Hinton Street. On the 21st day, A 50-year old man was struck on US 29. And on the 27th day, a 63-year old man was killed right outside of his house on Avon Street.

For other incidents within the last year: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here.

As far as I can tell from the reports, no charges were filed against the motorist in any of these cases.

I know that infrastructure is an important part of this discussion, and the City has committed $700,000 to pedestrian safety improvements, but I'd like to address the issue of culture here. It is perversely fascinating to me to read the comments on these news reports. Angry motorists, under the internet cloak of anonymity, immediately point fingers - often when the post provides no relevant facts about the incident whatsoever.

A sampling for your reading pleasure:

  • "People attempting to cross US-29 on foot is just one more example of stupid."
  • "If you step out in front of a car (or train), you deserve to get hit."
  • "Most people’s attitudes seem to be “Go ahead and hit me! I’ll sue you for all your worth!” But when you run out in front of a car, you should expect to be hit!"
  • "Hey peds - get this — you don’t have all the protection you think you do. If you step off of a curb into my path and I can’t stop or swerve its your ass — and your fault."
  • "If you’re stepping out in front of vehicles because they “can” stop, what makes you think they always “will”?"
Apparently there is a rash of suicidal pedestrians "hopping out in front" of cars all across the city. Of course, some people were defending the rights of pedestrians to be on the streets, and casting their blame on inattentive and harried drivers. Of all the comments, one insight by someone named Cecil seemed to transcend the blame-hurling:
"I try to abide by the general rule that whenever I am in a position of greater power over someone else (like, when I’m driving a big steel car and there’s a pedestrian or a biker), I have a responsibility to watch out so that I don’t injure the weaker party. That means I slow way down if there’s a biker in front of me and I wait until I can safely pass him or her, even if that means I’m going slower than the speed limit."
I'll throw my own anecdote in to illustrate the power differential Cecil speaks of. Last week, I waited for my turn to cross the downtown Market Street. When the walk signal flashed on, noting that there were no cars coming, I stepped out into the crosswalk. A lady in an SUV pulled out across from me at the same time, to make a left-hand turn across my path. She apparently didn't see me in the intersection at first, because she looked very startled as she started to approach me.

Then, instead of slowing down she put her hand in the air, signaling for me to stop, and continued to make her left turn across my path. At this point, I have a decision to make. Either I assert my legal right-of-way (like those angry commenters intend to do) or decide not to risk my life and stay put. I stayed put.

This asymmetry is why the blame-hurling does not resonate with me. A hunter and a hapless hiker, however uniformed, are not on a level playing field. The hunter needs to apply extreme caution at all times. And aren't we trying to encourage people to get out of their cars to take some strain off of tax-payer's expenses? Threatening to run them over, does not exactly communicate this message.

The amazing thing about respectful driving is that it is contagious. This has been my experience and I've heard it repeated by others as well. Some cities have generated whole cultures of respectful drivers, where it is simply understood that you ought to stop if you see a pedestrian waiting to cross. Why does this kind of culture sprout in some places rather than others? And what practical steps does it take to build this?

I'm just thankful that people like Cecil live here.


Zed said...

Do you have Critical Mass advocacy protests out there?

Daniel Nairn said...

No critical mass, but a local group does hold "neighborhood rides" throughout the year. Our neighborhood had about 20 people ride into downtown, about half being kids.

It's all kept entirely legal, but we did get a honk or two. Nothing like critical mass though.

Dave said...

Yea, I'd probably of stopped but given a little fake so she'd think I was still going to cross. :)

emory said...

Hey Daniel-

You must have listened to Peter Norton's discussion with Coy Barefoot regarding how the automobile gained primacy on the streets of America.Definitely worthwhile.

Daniel Nairn said...

Emory, Thanks for the link. It really is a fascinating story Norton tells. He gave a lecture at the University a couple of weeks ago to present some of his research.

Unknown said...

We do have critical mass here.

The City and County should make a serious commitment to enforcement. Well publicized "failure to yield to pedestrian" stings are a good first step towards Charlottesville becoming a safer place for people to walk.

Daniel Nairn said...

John, I'll have to hear more about Critical Mass. I guess I spoke too soon.

The idea of stings makes a lot of sense. I would think a cell phone law of some sort could be valuable too. Daily Progress yesterday discussed how school bus drivers complain about other drivers illegally passing them all the time.

"Cell phones are a problem" one of them says.

CarFree Stupidity said...

This kind of thing probably makes you long for old Missoula. The sad thing is that even with the culture of awarness and acceptence that Missoula has for bike/ped there are still two or three people hit every year.

I remember when I first moved to Missoula I was stunned by the was people treated peds, where I'm originally from, you don't walk around the streets. Now if I left, I'd have a hard time adjusting to a place where you can't just walk out in traffic.

Jon said...

thanks daniel for your post about nortons book a week or so ago, it was the first i had heard of this incredible book. it is telling a fascinating untold story.

Jon said...

heres another podcast on norton that i just found after searching more podcasts after hearing emorys...

KEXP mind over matters sustainability segments: peter norton