What and Who Are Really Behind All These Pedestrian Safety Campaigns?

©. Alberta Transportation says safety is a shared responsibility

Distracted walking has been in TreeHugger a lot lately, as cities from Honolulu to Toronto bring in laws to make looking at phones illegal. It's just one of many campaigns we have seen over the last few years promoting walking and cycling safety, from dressing up in hi-viz to wearing helmets, often organized by so-called traffic safety organizations. Many, including this TreeHugger, object to what many people think are perfectly reasonable campaigns and call them "victim blaming."

Stephanie Patterson writes (with Mikael Colville-Andersen) in the Copenhagenize blog that these Traffic Safety Orgs Speak for Themselves - Not the Rest of Us.

speed and death rate

© Brian Tefft AAAThose of us who walk or cycle tend to conclude that the single best way to stop the carnage on the road would be to slow cars down; all the data show that the rate of death is directly proportional to speed. But that's not what these traffic safety orgs actually say.

As it is now, the campaign language and programs promoted by the traffic safety organisations unabashedly victimise the individual (primarily pedestrians and cyclists) rather than speak out about the dangers of motorised vehicles. They also tend to ignore the one most obvious solution to lower road fatalities – a drastic reduction in the number of motorised vehicles on the road.

Edmonton safety campaign

© City of Edmonton

Copenhagenize looked at campaigns in a number of countries, and found that they almost always stress "Programs indirectly or directly implying that walking and cycling are dangerous and freely using classic Culture of Fear techniques to scare cyclists and pedestrians."

Their baseline is clear. Cars are here to stay - everyone else either get out of the way or bubble wrap yourself. What this communication subculture doesn’t talk about is rather telling. Basically anything that would brand cars as the problem - or reducing the number of cars.

There are no campaigns warning people that driving is the most dangerous thing people do in their daily lives. There are no campaigns to put helmets on drivers, even though it might save thousands of lives. There are no campaigns to make all cars high-viz or to ban distractions in cars.

statistics on deaths

© New Scientist

The authors point out that "Of all the developed countries in the world, the US is by far the worst performing in terms of road fatalities and injuries," the main reason being that "Americans drive a lot and far and don’t look to be slowing down anytime soon." But that misses a major part of the problem- the cars sold in North America are more dangerous by design. They do not have to meet European safety standards for pedestrians; even Tesla sells a car that is safer in Europe than it is in America.

Yet there are no campaigns to ban SUVs and pickup trucks, because they are the most profitable vehicles on the market. Instead there are campaigns to ban distracted walking or even talking to your children while walking.

Patterson notes:

All the negative campaigns blaming cyclists and pedestrians for not equipping themselves with body armour and Christmas tree lights would be more credible if the same effort was placed on motorists and cars. Traffic safety organisations can improve the message they are sending out to their citizens if they even the playing field and state in no uncertain terms how dangerous cars are in cities and how dangerous they are, generally. The culture of fear needs to be flipped on its head.

In his 1972 book Blaming the Victim, sociologist William Ryan noted that "The process is often very subtle. Victim-blaming is cloaked in kindness and concern, and bears all the trappings and statistical furbelows of scientism; it is obscured by a perfumed haze of humanitarianism."

But in fact it is all about power, control, and maintaining the status quo. As the Copehagenize article demonstrates, the traffic safety organizations are overwhelming cyclists and pedestrians with their kindness and concern. We would all be better off if they would look in the mirror.