Saturday, April 1, 2017

You Are Driving Death

I saw a pedestrian almost get hit by a car yesterday.

First, some background: Minnesota law says pedestrians have the right of way at every intersection (unless they're crossing against a red light). Whether there’s a crosswalk painted on the street or not, if it’s a corner, pedestrians have the right of way. Every corner, every time.

There are some limits on this, of course. Cars need time to stop, so if a pedestrian appears at the curb suddenly when you’re 20 feet from the intersection, you drive past. If you are obeying the speed limit and paying attention, though, you’re likely to notice the pedestrians, understand their intent from their behavior, and have time to stop even when you're a few car lengths from the intersection. It would be even better if the speed limit was 25 miles per hour.

In the situation yesterday, I was going at or just below the speed limit of 30 miles per hour on a two-lane, two-way street. In this diagram, I’m driving the car that has the arrow in front of it. (Non-parked cars are blue and parked cars are gray.)

As I approached the intersection, I realized there was a pedestrian standing in the street at the corner where the red circle is. She was not up on the curb in an ambiguous spot, as if waiting for someone. She was standing at least three feet into the street, within the parking spot area.

I did that rapid mental calculation you do in this situation (is the car behind me so close that it will rear-end me if I stop?) and stopped. She — at this point I realized it was a somewhat elderly woman — made eye contact with me and started to move into the driving lane in front of her.

It was at that point when I realized there was another car, driven by a young guy, that had been waiting in the south-bound lane of the side street adjacent to the pedestrian. He wanted to turn right and surged out onto the the main street as if the woman wasn’t there.

I laid on my horn and the pedestrian leapt back. The guy stopped. After a second of no one in motion, the pedestrian scurried across the street, the guy gave me a dirty look and sped off on his way, and I (yelling invective at him) continued on my way, too.

What was he doing? How did he not see her? She was in motion right in front of him. He wasn’t on his phone, and this was at 3:00 in the afternoon so he had plenty of daylight and probably wasn’t drunk.

Possibly she was blocked in his field of vision by the solid post between his windshield and window. But it's no excuse. We all should be in the habit of moving our heads, especially when making turns, to be sure those stupid posts (which have gotten wider in recent years as more airbags have been added) aren't blocking us from seeing pedestrians.

It’s with that experience in mind (and others like this one) that I present this cartoon from today’s Star Tribune:

It’s by Steve Sack, who is usually a voice of reason. But this is a great example of how even thoughtful people don’t understand that cars are weapons and that the burden is on drivers, not pedestrians.

Distracted pedestrians? Unless they’re wandering into traffic in the middle of the street between crosswalks with their noses buried in their phones, they are not the ones who are at fault, and likely not the ones distracted in a meaningful way. If I'm looking at my phone when a driver hits me as I cross at an intersection, is it my fault if I didn't leap out of the way? No, it's 100 percent the car driver's fault.

The last five pedestrian fatalities in Saint Paul were all people legally crossing in a crosswalk, like this woman I encountered yesterday. They were not distracted. Playing up this distraction angle in media, from news stories to cartoons, allows the driving public to excuse itself once again from the responsibility of driving a two-ton death machine.


Carl said...

In Sack's defense, you're just assuming that the distracted pedestrian was killed by a car. It could have been anything.

Janice Wagar said...

I totally agree about the window posts becoming an increasingly dangerous obstruction to seeing pedestrians and on-coming traffic! I'm often faced with turning left onto Kellogg from Robert Street during rush hour. There's no turn arrow and the traffic racing north over the Robert Street bridge at a break-neck speed is deadly for pedestrians and scary for drivers. There really needs to be a campaign to caution drivers that "Pedestrians have the right of way!"