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Blaming the pedestrian won’t solve the problem

Walking in the ditch Originally uploaded by Transportation for America to Flickr.
If this woman got hit by car, it’s probably her fault, right? Photograph by Stephen Lee Davis/Transportation for America.

We noted on Twitter this morning a story in the USA Today about pedestrian deaths increasing in 2010, halting a decline that had been going on for quite a few years. The USA Today story took the angle offered from the head of a state safety association (Governors Highway Safety Association) that pedestrians are at fault for the increase in deaths. The Washington Examiner, not to be outdone, took some comments from the head of the association to baselessly suggest that more pedestrians are being killed because of the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign to get more people active and walking to stem the obesity epidemic.

That’s right, it has nothing to do with things like 4 -and 6- and 8- lane arterials with no sidewalks and crosswalks a mile apart running through our communities. Or streets built without sidewalks. Or 55 mile per hour speed limits on roads where people need to walk. Or curved right turn lanes that allow cars to make turns at intersections at 30 mph. It has nothing to do with roads that are dangerous by design, leading to thousands of avoidable fatalities every year.

Automatically blaming the pedestrian is shameful and the GHSA should take their time to study the issue more carefully. Pedestrians are dying by the thousands, and it’s not because they’re using an ipod while crossing the street or trying to get more exercise at the First Lady’s urging. It’s because our basic choices about road design have left far too many without a safe place to walk, putting too many pedestrians in harm’s way.

We’d laugh at the GHSA’s silly suggestion, but we’re talking about a crisis that’s resulted in 76,000 deaths in the last 15 years. It’s no laughing matter.

UPDATE: The GHSA told the Atlantic that they were misquoted by the Examiner. They don’t refute a possible link, but they do say they support Michelle Obama’s program, adding that if more people are walking, they need to be aware.

Harsha said her primary concern for pedestrians was the increased use of electronic devices like iPods that can block out sound and make walkers unaware of oncoming traffic. The organization has received anecdotal evidence of pedestrian injuries caused by people walking into traffic.

It’s good they clarified, but it still sounds like they don’t quite grasp the main cause of death for pedestrians: Roads that are dangerous by design and unsafe for pedestrians. “Distracted” pedestrians aren’t the real culprit here.

TBD, a local DC news site, shared the pitch that they got from the GHSA, which is likely where the “Let’s Move” connection originated:

“Why the increase? We don’t really know but speculate that it could be a couple factors. One is the possible increase in distracted pedestrians and distracted drivers. We’ve been focusing on the drivers, but perhaps we need to focus some attention on distracted walkers! Additionally, Mrs. Obama and others have been bringing attention to ‘get moving’ programs, so perhaps pedestrian exposure has increased.”


  1. Frymaster

    13 years ago

    I’ll just float it on out there for you, GHSA, that perhaps the recession has made the automobile too expensive for some households. Perhaps these folks might prefer to drive, but can’t afford to.

  2. Celsius1414

    13 years ago

    Typical, blaming the victim.

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  4. VR

    13 years ago

    What killed Pedestrians before there were “electronic devices like iPods”?

    I have received ancedotal evidence that people have been distracted by zippers snagging their seat belts, therefore I believe people should drive naked. Or at a minimum without zippers.

    “People walkiing into traffic” is *always* how car drivers will describe the situation – because, uhm, that’s what happens. Whether it is because they are chasing a ball, using a transistor radio and grooving to the Platters, or trying to cross 7 lanes moving at 50mph – there is *never* a reason why a car driver should hit a pedestrian. If we want pedestrians to be safe: speeds need to be slower, streets narrower, sight lines better, and crossings more protected.

  5. Gerald Weinand

    13 years ago

    The logic used by the GHSA is amazing. FIrst, their own report shows that there was only a 0.4% increrase in pedestrian deaths from the 1st half of 2009 to the 1st half of 2010 – all of seven people. While it is lamentable that any is killed while walking, this is hardly a “spike” as some have describe it.

    But then think – if more people are walking, then in fact the fatality number should go up. More people are killed in vehicle collisions today than in the 1960’s, but that’s simply a factor that there are more people driving and for longer distances. Rates of deaths per vehicle mile driven are actually down since then.

    What the GHSA needs to compare is the rate of pedestrian deaths per mile walked.

    That media outlets like the Daily Caller and the Washington Examiner took this news to simply bash Mrs. Obama’s laudable efforts is the real story.

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  7. Froggie

    13 years ago

    Sadly, those of us in DC have come to expect this type of shoddy reporting from some of the Examiner’s reporters…

  8. Steve O

    13 years ago

    “Harsha said her primary concern for pedestrians was the increased use of electronic devices”


    Her #1, most important concern for pedestrians is ipods??!!!


    That’s unbelievable! So I’m to understand that whatever resources they might put towards pedestrian safety will go first to reducing electronics use? After all, if that’s the “PRIMARY CONCERN,” that’s where the money should go, right?

    I wonder what her primary concern a few years ago, before the ubiquitous iwhatevers, was? That must be her #2 concern now I guess.

    I would’ve choked on my sandwich had I been eating one when I read that line. For safety reasons, I’ll remember not to eat while reading statements from the GHSA in the future.

  9. Rachel

    13 years ago

    As a pedestrian in DC, I can say you take your life in your hands every time you cross the street, WITH the Walk sign in your favor. There are a lot of impatient drivers who think they are VERY IMPORTANT, and if they’re not actually running over you, they are pulling up very close so that they can make their turn as soon as those pesky pedestrians are out of the way.

    Several months ago a NO TURNS policy was instituted at a corner near a downtown Metro stop. Every day cars continue to turn there. Maybe a few of them still aren’t aware of the changed traffic pattern, but I know some of them just don’t care. Just yesterday someone in a suv-like limo whipped around the corner right in front of me and another pedestrian. It doesn’t help that there has been no police enforcement at this corner, after the first week or two. The “me first” attitude of many drivers can make walking unpleasant in the city.

  10. Stephen J Levine

    13 years ago

    suggesting its the pedestrian’s fault is just plain stupid!

    it is high time that an end is put to the purveying of stupidity as knowledge.

    i have been a pedestrian for a long time and we just seem to be ignored by traffic planners. I am getting sick and tired of that.

  11. derrick

    13 years ago

    First i want to comment on the title blaming a pedestrian wont solve the problem. In a way thats true but who you blame when a driver doing the speed limit, not driving reckless not at a crosswalk or light or making a turn just going straight down the road to the store and a pedestrian run in front of there car and leave the driver with no room to avoid hitting them. This happen to a friend of mines we all know that a pedestrian and a car is no match the pedestrian is gonna lose. But at the same time as a driver you don,t have the physical damage but emotional you will be devastated you will be a emotional desaster. No driver get in there car and say i want to hit someone today no matter if its a car or a pedestrian. Second i think rules should be tough on drivers and pedestrian. A pedestrian should know when they make a bad decision to try and beat a car across the street not only is they putting there life in danger but also the driver life because not only the driver may face a prison sentence but also the emotional damage they will cost that driver. We all are pedestrian at some point and we need to know these things. which by adult hood we know these things but still sometimes we make a bad decision to do so its the same thing as running in front of a train or driving across the track trying to beat the train we know what would happen if we dont make it in time we gonna get hurt really bad or death so who do we blame for us making a bad decision. I have seen the damage of a cousin that was hit by a car and someone i didnt know and as i ask my cousin why he run out in front of the car he didnt have a answer just he wanted to get across the street and never made it why because he didnt want to wait for one car to past so he can make it safely Third to all drivers who break the law by speeding or dui just know its the same rule as a pedestrian not only are you putting your life in danger but also others so please drivers follow the law lets not throw our or someone else life away over a pack of beer its not worth it. Thank you for reading and please understand where im coming from when i say its not always a driver fault same as a pedestrian thank you

  12. John

    13 years ago

    USA is the richest Third World country out there.

  13. Dave

    13 years ago

    I live in Palm Desert, CA, and there are at least sidewalks and bike lanes here. They even let golf carts on the roads.

    However, there are also multi-lane boulevards and highways with VERY high speed limits between me and various points of interest. Those crossings are always interesting. It looks like such a novelty to people in their cars, seeing a pedestrian there in a crosswalk.

    I’ve learned that you HAVE to look at the right lane traffic, even behind you (if crossing in the same direction as traffic) and MAKE EYE CONTACT with the drivers, wave at them, flag them down, or they WILL try to run you over, even with the crossing signal. You HAVE to watch every car the whole way across. They seriously aren’t seeing you. You’re lucky if they even notice the traffic light is red.

  14. Barry Childress

    13 years ago

    In Maryland (the GSHA Chairman’s State) they have been enforcing pedestrian “safety” by (only) ticketing j-walkers. While comments I get from all over the State is “Drivers don’t stop for pedestrains in crosswalks.” I will assert that if indeed there is a high frequency of not stopping (or at least scaring the heck out of pedestrains in crosswalks so they don’t feel safe there) any rational person would chose to cross mid-block.

    We need attention to the full spectrum of road safety from all users.

    I will also note I have never read any news report about a pedestrian wearing headphones involved in a traffic accident. I will assert that Maryland drivers might be getting upset about pedestrians asserting their right-of-way and not yielding to the “superior” automobile by acting zombie like. Because in Maryland if you make eye contact that’s the clue to the driver to go ahead and run over your toes. (I can give a logical explanation if there is any interest but I have also verified this by experimentation.)

  15. EV

    13 years ago

    Here is a case in California where the driver and his insurance company tried to blame the pedestrian victim:



  16. Dave

    12 years ago

    I would suggest that there is a shared responsibility here. Motorists need to be attentive and pedestrians need to be aware and visible. I live in Portland Oregon where it is dark much of the year  and where most folks wear dark clothing.. This reminds of the old joke about the man who prayed daily to win the lottery until G-d finally spoke to him and said “Make it easy, buy a ticket”.

  17. Dave

    12 years ago

    I would suggest that there is a shared responsibility here. Motorists need to be attentive and pedestrians need to be aware and visible. I live in Portland Oregon where it is dark much of the year  and where most folks wear dark clothing.. This reminds of the old joke about the man who prayed daily to win the lottery until G-d finally spoke to him and said “Make it easy, buy a ticket”.