Put Down Your Phone, It's Pedestrian Safety Month!

It's 'blame the victim' time again

General pedestrian death


It's National Pedestrian Safety Month, a new campaign from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), whose Deputy Administrator James Owens says "Everyone has a role to play in ensuring pedestrian safety." Treehugger has often been alternately amused and horrified by the NHTSA's information campaigns, most recently with "NHTSA Keeps Blaming Victims Instead of Regulating SUVs and Pickups." Now we have a whole month of this to look forward to, each week having a different focus.

Week 1: Speed

Speed kills

Week 1 is about vehicle speed, and in their sample press release, they have an imaginary [Local/State Official] saying “Following the speed limit isn’t just the law — it is a critical component to keeping pedestrians safe." Adding:

"If you are speeding, pedestrians can seem to “come out of nowhere.” This is especially true in neighborhoods and around schools. Even if you are going 35 mph in a 20 mph zone, it increases your vehicle’s stopping distance by more than 100 feet. In those few seconds, your vehicle will travel the length of a basketball court, and it could be too late to avoid hitting the pedestrian in front of you."

They don't mention the fact that roads are designed for speed, with wide lanes and often very long distances between controls such as traffic lights, or the need for traffic calming, or the fact that often the speed limits are just too high. If it takes 164 feet to stop on a road with a limit of 40 miles per hour then maybe that is just too fast for anything but a controlled-access highway, yet you see all kinds of urban streets with that speed. That's why we say twenty is plenty.

It's also a fact that people in big, high SUVs tend to drive faster than those in smaller vehicles. So we have road design and vehicle design issues that contribute to people driving too fast. But not a word about that.

Week 2: Distraction


They start off strong, noting that “Sending or receiving an average text takes a driver’s eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, the equivalent of driving blindfolded at 55-mph for the length of an entire football field,” said [Local/State Official]. But then it is same old, same old:

"Pedestrian distraction is also a real problem; the effects can be detected in crash data, naturalistic behavioral observations, virtual environment simulator studies, and the laboratory. Distraction changes the way pedestrians walk, react, and behave, including safety-related behaviors."
NHTSA Fars data on electronics

Actually, that is not true; the NHTSA's own crash data (above) show that the numbers are negligible. It is also true that lots of people have natural distractions that change the way they walk. People who have vision issues and are looking down; people who are hard of hearing. There are all kinds of distractions that shouldn't get you killed.

But Mr. Local/StateOfficial doesn't stop there:

“It is absurd how common it has become to see people walking down the street looking at their phones,” said [Local/State Official]. “Whether motorist or pedestrian, all road users share the responsibility of keeping themselves and others safe while interacting with traffic. We all have cell phones, and we use them all the time,” said [Local/State Official]. “But when you get behind the wheel, or you’re walking down the street, putting away your phone should be automatic."

Mr. [Local/State Official] is complaining about people walking on the sidewalk here, not even in a crosswalk.

Impaired pedestrians

Week 2 also includes impaired pedestrians, with the statement that "About one-third (33%) of pedestrians killed in crashes were over the legal alcohol limit for drivers," which might be the reason they decided to walk in the first place. It's not like there is a law against it either.

“Being drunk affects judgment, balance, and reaction time. It often results in bad decision- making, which can lead to unpredictably risky behaviors,” said [Local/State Ofcial]. “This combined with the change from Daylight Saving Time each fall when we lose one hour of light in the evening makes it harder for motorists to see pedestrians, which increases an impaired pedestrian’s risk.” [he/she] said. 

Now if a drunk pedestrian runs into me on the sidewalk, I do not think it's going to kill me. I would also prefer someone who is drunk walk home rather than drive. To draw any kind of equivalence between a drunk driver and a drunk walker is just nuts.

Week 3: School Bus Passing

School bus passing

It's just remarkable how common this is. "A national survey conducted by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services that tracks the illegal passing of school buses found that in 2019, more than 95,000 motorists ran school bus stop arms in one day." There should be cameras on every bus and these people should just lose their licenses forever.

Week 4: Conspicuity and Older Pedestrians

Flashlight.  NHTSA
"In 2018, more pedestrian fatalities occurred in the dark (76%) than in daylight (20%), dusk (2%), and dawn (2%). [Local /State Official] warns drivers, 'adjusting to the new low-light environment can take time, and that puts everyone – especially pedestrians – at greater risk of death or injury,' [he/she said]. 'Pedestrians who carry a flashlight or wear reflective gear at night increase their safety by making sure they’re visible to drivers at greater distances,' [he/ she said]."

Here is where it gets totally ridiculous. Nobody should have to dress up like a Christmas tree and carry a flashlight to stay alive. It is all about shifting the blame, making the person walking responsible. Here is the NHTSA, which administers cars, telling people out walking to be scared, very scared. I wrote previously: "They want to make it very clear that if we dare step into their space, the road, then we better be on the defensive, moving out of their way as quickly as possible, alert, dressed in hi-viz and carrying a flashlight or we deserve what we get."

Older pedestrians

Then finally, there are the older people getting killed, though I suspect a lot of people between the ages of 50 and 64 would not consider themselves older. The highest rate of death is in fact among people over 65, and the rate is highest among those over 80.

"U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration research shows that older pedestrians are overrepresented in intersection crashes. They are also more likely to be hit during the day, weekdays, and during the winter. Because many older adults are vulnerable to physical injuries, they may not recover from a pedestrian crash."

Here we have so many contributing factors. So what does the NHTSA do? Instead of insisting on safer vehicles, emergency stop systems, and road improvements, they tell the kids who have already probably taken away their parents' car keys, to take away their shoes.

"It’s important for loved ones to take steps to ensure older pedestrians’ safety. After observing and assessing an older adult’s walking abilities, a family member or friend may want to discuss questions or concerns. Be prepared to discuss transportation alternatives and other potential solutions to increase an older pedestrian’s safety."

Given that walking is probably the healthiest thing than any older person can do, this is crazy talk, as silly as saying "safety is a shared responsibility." People who drive kill people who walk, and I cannot think of a single case where it was the other way around.

Kea Wilson of Streetsblog did a great job of covering this in "‘National Pedestrian Safety Month’ Campaign Is An Offensive Parade of Dangerous Traffic Violence Myths."