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Stop blaming pedestrians for getting killed

There was a rather weird initiative yesterday morning as I wandered from my bus to work around the corner of Queen Street and Victoria Street – a mariachi band playing in time with pedestrians crossing the road and encouraging people to “check before they step”. It took a visit to Auckland Transport’s website to make sense out of it:

In line with a statistical change in the age of pedestrians being injured, Auckland Transport launched its new ‘Check Before You Step’ pedestrian safety campaign in Aotea Square targeting both pedestrians and drivers…

…At the campaign’s launch a mariachi band played as pedestrians cross the road in Queen Street, Auckland. They played when the lights turned green and stopped when they turned red. The band was a fun interactive way for Auckland Transport to reach its key audience. The campaign uses a cascade of media messages to raise awareness among pedestrians to cross safely and for motorists to slow down. Bus backs and bus shelters around key town centres and pedestrian routes will be used.

Campaigns to improve road safety are certainly excellent – and initiatives to get drivers to slow down is probably the absolute best way to improve road safety, particularly in busy pedestrian areas like downtown Auckland, but there’s a certain undercurrent to much of the thinking about this campaign that frustrates me a bit. Perhaps it’s best illustrated by this quote from Auckland Transport’s Community Transport Manager Matthew Rednall:

“Every day there are pedestrians not checking that the light is green before stepping out into oncoming traffic, and there are pedestrians rushing to get across before the light goes red…

…“Distractions such as listening to music through earphones, talking on mobile phones and jay-walking are also becoming factors in crashes,” said Mr Rednall.

By the sound of all this, you would think there are tonnes of pedestrians wandering out on roads just trying to get themselves killed. I think that’s fairly unlikely myself – and although pedestrians do need to take care when crossing the road, surely a greater onus needs to go onto drivers to make damn sure they’re not going to kill anyone when they’re driving around.

As an interesting aside, I wonder whether one of the most dangerous things for pedestrians in the city centre are the crossing sounds at traffic lights. Just the other day I was waiting, somewhat distracted in my thoughts, at the corner of Victoria and Albert Streets by the bungy machine and the crossing sound went off for the other phase – it was only after about three steps out onto the road did I realise it was for the other phase, and I quickly hurried back. I’m not quite sure how to resolve that particular issue, but I do wonder whether it factors in any vehicle/pedestrian accidents. Certainly I’ve seen over and over again people stepping out when they hear the noise, before quickly realising that it wasn’t actually for them.

Perhaps what annoys me about this “blame the pedestrian” syndrome, is how different things seemed in the North America during my trip there last year. One of the most striking memories I have is how friendly drivers in North American cities (particularly in New York City) are towards pedestrians. Here’s what I wrote back in September last year while visiting:

One thing that I have found interesting in New York is the interaction between pedestrians and motorists. Due to the NYC grid, there are thousands upon thousands of intersections with traffic-lights on Manhattan Island. That means a lot of roads to cross, a lot of lights to wait for. However, usually you don’t have to end up waiting – you just walk as there aren’t particularly many cars except on the main north-south avenues.

Even when there are cars coming through on a green light, they seem to always slow down and give way to pedestrians who are halfway across the road jay-walking. Perhaps it’s the massive number of pedestrians that makes this work, perhaps NYC drivers are just more concerned about pedestrian safety than in Auckland, or perhaps it’s something else altogether. I like the “greying” of the boundaries between pedestrians and vehicles that we see in NYC – a friendliness to pedestrians that I actually didn’t expect to see at all.

Although Manhattan is a really really busy place, both in terms of pedestrians and vehicles, it felt a really safe place to cross the road. Even if you stuffed something up, by forgetting which way traffic was turning or for a second thinking one was back in New Zealand and the cars went the other way, nothing ever seemed particularly dangerous because the drivers are careful.

In places like Auckland’s city centre, or on non-arterial local roads, I wonder whether we need to think a bit more radically about our efforts to improve pedestrian safety. Is there really a reason for any streets in the city centre to have a speed limit of higher than 30 kilometres an hour? Is there really a reason for the speed limits on non-arterial local roads to be any higher than 40 kph? Should pedestrians have a greater level of legal protection in these areas? Maybe one of the reasons pedestrians cross on red lights is because their phasing takes forever – why don’t we do something about that issue?

Those are some interesting questions to ponder, and I think changes like these would be far more effective than blaming pedestrians for getting themselves killed.

23 comments to Stop blaming pedestrians for getting killed

  • Tom

    Just the other day I was waiting, somewhat distracted in my thoughts, at the corner of Victoria and Albert Streets by the bungy machine and the crossing sound went off for the other phase – it was only after about three steps out onto the road did I realise it was for the other phase, and I quickly hurried back.

    With all due respect this is exactly the issue that Mathew Rednall was alluding too. You were distracted by something else when you should have been looking at the RED/GREEN man signals for the road crossing, instead of just wandering out onto the road. More attention needed, i would feel sorry for the car driver who might of hit you, would it have been his fault?

    • Chances are if they had been driving carefully they would have been able to not hit me.

      • obi

        Does this apply to at-grade railway crossings as well? If train drivers were more careful and kept their speed down to 10 or 20km/hr then people would be able to wander across tracks without looking and be completely safe.

        I’m all for careful driving. But not stepping out in front of fast moving heavy objects is just basic Darwinian survival of the fittest principles in action.

        • Brisbane has a serious problem with cars hitting train boom gates. A lot of drivers speed up when they see the light go yellow;

        • Obi, surely the best equivalent of the rail network is the motorway system? Both being exclusive access corridors. Note that my comments generally apply to city centre streets and to small local roads.

          • obi

            That’d be true if the rail system was completely grade separated like the motorway network is. But it isn’t. It goes through suburbs and minor shopping centers and often has level crossings.

  • tochigi

    * in Tokyo the speed limit on non-arterial roads is either 20k/h or 30k/h.
    * in Japan, at intersections where there are crossing sounds, there are different tunes for each phase. these are mainly for blind and sight-impaired people’s benefit.

  • Oh yes, we had this in Brisbane too. Too many people were getting run over or hit on Brisbane’s City streets. By law, you pedestrians ALWAYS have right of way. Why? Because if you run them over, they die.

    The result was a campaign “cross with the green man” educating pedestrians on safe crossing. Except the problem is city design and human nature. If you design a city that caters for high speed vehicle movement, people are not going to waste their time walking 500-800m to the next safe crossing. They are going to cross the road because that’s low risk for them.

    Cars need to be slowed down. Pontification doesn’t do anything to resolve the issue that doing the “wrong” thing has higher benefits and is faster for a pedestrian than walking all the way to the crossing. That’s a design issue, one that is the result of pandering to fast car speeds.

    • obi

      “Cars need to be slowed down.”

      There is a lot of scope for this in the CBD and quiet streets in the suburbs. But I think it would take a change in mentality in NZ where speed limits are arbitrary and widely seen as a way for the government to raise revenue and to force people to “respect mah authoritay”. Streets that would be limited to 60 or 70km/hr in Australian cities are usually an arbitrary 50km/hr in NZ. Motorways are limited to 100km/hr, the same as country highways and much less than the 120 or 130km/hr in most of the world. Most people ignore the limits and drive with the prevailing traffic, ready to slam on the brakes when they see a car parked suspiciously or if a car well ahead of them slows down suddenly. That would have to change, and I believe it would require a more nuanced government view of speed… it isn’t the sort of issue that can be solved with a televised campaign, of which we already have more than enough already.

      I don’t know exactly when it changed, but the speed limit on motorways was 80km/hr back in the early 80s. Everyone ignored the limit, including the (Labour) Minister of Transport who sailed past me one day. I was actually pulled over once for doing 90km/hr on a motorway, but the officer was embarrassed enough to let me off with a warning.

  • Chris Harris

    The issue of blaming the pedestrian goes back to the 1920s, to political struggles to set the urban speed limit and to define increasing levels of right of way for cars in city limits (in the 1890s someone had to walk in front waving a red flag–not a bad idea). It’s all political. See for instance Peter D. Norton, Fighting Traffic (MIT Press 2008).

  • Patrick R

    Oh please, no PR campaign just better engineering, like, duh?, get the stupid cars out of Queen St, already.

  • Chris Harris

    This reminds me also that “Blaming the Victim” is the standard term in the literature, a phrase quite possibly coined by 1990s Auckland-based researchers Ian Roberts and Carolyn Coggan, see for instance: http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/01/stop-blaming-the-victim.php also http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/ped_bike/docs/roberts2.pdf
    Roberts has long since left the country and these days bluntly calls the idea of educating the pedestrian “lies” http://www.lshtm.ac.uk/prospectus/profiles/roberts.html, Carolyn Coggan is gamely sticking it out here in NZ with the Safe Communities Foundation: http://www.safecommunities.org.nz/ .
    What such literature generally makes clear is that “It’s a design problem, not a pedestrian problem.”
    Everything else is car / truck lobby propaganda and magical thinking, i.e. paint some magic white lines on the road and designate ‘proper’ pedestrian crossings 100s of metres apart and then if anyone (even a kiddie) gets killed, it must be their fault.
    I also agree re the utter stupidity of having opposing crossing phases that sound the same; again, this shows that nobody is really thinking about the humble ped, who pays no road tax and is perhaps for that reason an afterthought.
    Since the 1920s, the traffic engineering profession has all too often followed the money in this regard, treating the road-tax paying automotive road user as the client and the pedestrian (and cyclist) as charity cases (cf Norton, above). It’s as crude and simple as that. This is especially true if the profession is funded directly out of road taxes, as in the USA and in New Zealand (National Roads Fund in the 1950s, National Land Transport Fund today.)

  • Chris Harris

    Actually Roberts and Coggan got the idea from a book called Blaming the Victim by W. Ryan (NY, Random House, 1976).

  • Jeremy

    It’s definitely the car drivers responsibility to watch out, which I don’t find particularly difficult, to me your eyes are watching ahead anyway. I don’t think I have to be more careful or tentative when driving I just have to keep my eyes open – simple as that. Anyone who thinks otherwise thinks they own the road and people deliberately walk in front of you to piss you off. I mean If I hear a story of a cyclist or pedestrian getting mowed down I don’t expect the driver to be male because men have better peripheral vision – don’t we.

  • Stu Donovan

    I think it’s a case of all of the above. There is no doubt that our streets have been designed to meet the needs of cars, and in doing so we have increased risks for pedestrians. On the other hand, pedestrians still get hit even in environments that are designed with them in mind, e.g. Amsterdam. So I think the best solution is: a) Engineers need to design streets for people, not just cars b) car drivers should be responsible when they hit people unless there are mitigating factors (e.g. suicide attempts) and c) pedestrians need to be educated and remain attentive. I do think a) and b) are more important than c), but progress can be made on all fronts.

  • Chris Harris

    Sorry, but this is brilliant. Ryan’s original example was the condemnation of a mother who did not constantly watch her children to stop them eating flaky lead paint that the landlord (presumably) had not bothered to replace: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/06/13/us/william-j-ryan-78-sociologist-explored-the-blaming-of-victims.html

  • Scott

    I was surprised at driver behavior in the US too. I crossed a 6 or 8 lane road near an intersection in LA and waited on the median line. I was expecting cars to keep driving past but the car in the center lane stopped 20 meters away and just waited till i crossed fully

    I think a combination of the road rules favoring pedestrians if and collision happens, and the risk of multi-million dollar lawsuits means it prudent for drivers to be extremely careful of pedestrians.

  • GOP

    One of the first things that I noticed living in NZ is the number of “Pedestrians give way to traffic” signs.
    It has never made sense to me. I’m used to a more “humane” philosophy like that highlighted in Manhattan … it may have to do with the fact that some cities were built when walking was the main mode of transport and when the car came it came “after” people.
    I see the point in getting pedestrians to be conscious of the risks but I believe that there are much more benefit (and they extend into the future) by putting motor vehicles behind people in the foodchain. Why should it be allowed to drive at more than 30km/hr in residential only areas? … Only if a vehicle is travelling at less than 30km/hr a pedestrian has a chance to survive the collision.

  • Riccardo

    Melbourne has the same problem with tram ‘safety zones’ as if the roadway is intended to be dangerous, and the ped is seeking shelter from it.

    And this is road industry propaganda. In the absence of such a safety zone, the ped is supposed to be able to stop traffic, walk across the roadway to and from the tram. By installing these ‘safety zones’ the onus is back on the ped, and the car is able to speed through.

  • dan

    Blaming the Pedestrian also stems from how the Police address any incident within their reporting. Read any incident or crash summary written up by a Police officer involving a pedestrian and 9 times out of 10, they’ll simply state it was ‘Pedestrian failed to cross properly’ or something similar. I’m sure this does happen, but I’d be surprised if a similar box existed for motorist failure to see or acknowledge pedestrians.

  • OrangeKiwi

    After living in NZ for about three years now, I still can’t get over the fact that virtually no motorist knows that pedestrians actually have right of way over cars entering or exiting a driveway (… or just ignores this rule en masse.) Goes to show that just having a set of road rules doesn’t cut it when in practice it’s survival of the “biggest”. Lowering speed limits down to 30k would probably be ignored by motorists because they can – who’s going to stop them? A 70 kilo bag of meat with a brain sure as hell won’t risk it… And any cops handing out speeding tickets to curb speeding and actually making the roads safer will soon after have to cease doing this or risk abuse because people would pour their outrage about not being able to drive to the shops at at least a convenient 50k all over the media, after which the government would cave in and raise the speed limits back to at least 50 again and a “hooray and thanks for being such a representative government” (for anyone driving a car) would resound. It’s all about the mindset… how do we change that?

    • Ari

      This hits the nail on the spot. People don’t seem to understand that left turning vehicles are required by the road code to give way to pedestrians crossing to the left of the vehicle at a signalised intersection. The same goes for a driveway, the pedestrian has right of way. We shouldn’t have to have “Give way to pedestrian signs” or left turn red arrows to stop cars turning left into a pedestrian. Drivers should know the road rules.

      It has been raised by GOP and Scott comparing drivers in the US/Canada. Their road rules give priority to pedestrians, particularly at uncontrolled intersections. Particularly, they use a lot of 4-way stop intersections with two white lines in front of cars to delineate where pedestrians may cross. Vehicles must give way to pedestrians crossing at these points. This is the KEY difference between NZ and the US in terms of driver courtesy. Legally in NZ, vehicles have right of way, so drivers drive without any concern to pedestrians. We need to change this and adopt the pedestrian-first policy as in the US. I doubt this will ever happen, but I see it as the only way we can get real change in driver behaviour.

  • LucyJH

    They do the same for cyclists – lots of education aimed at cyclists and exhortations to cycle carefully. But actually in most fatal cycling accidents cars are responsible. It’s just that more drivers are voters than cyclists, so why offend them ;) ?

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