4-way intersection

‘Dad, Someone Got Hit by a Car’

In the past couple of weeks, whenever my kids hear a siren on the street, they’ve said one of the following:

  • “Someone got hit by a car”
  • “Someone got crushed by a car”

We live within a block in each direction of high-traffic roads and also a few blocks from a hospital, so we hear sirens all the time. And my kids say this all the time. My wife and I try to correct them to simply say “Someone is in trouble,” which has worked about 25% of the time. It usually comes back to “Someone got hit by a car.”

These comments are initially amusing, especially hearing it from the mouth of a 2-year-old. However, when you think about it, they are somewhat troubling statements. Why would my kids’ immediate reaction to a siren be the thought that someone got hit by a car? Well, because we’ve taught them to think this way.

Wild Animals on Dangerous Streets

Anyone who has seen little kids knows that they love to run free and it often takes a lot of effort, and sometimes chasing and shouting long distances, to rein them in. Often times like these happen because kids are playing too close to the road. When the kids ask what’s wrong about what they’re doing, we have to teach them about the danger of cars and how kids would get hurt if they ran into a busy road, or even crossed a quiet street without looking.

It’s like we’re teaching kids that cars are tigers that are freely roaming the streets, and if kids aren’t careful, they will be picked off by a tiger car as if they were prey. 100% a kid’s fault, right? This is pretty much the status quo throughout the United States. And it’s an unfortunate situation, too.

Speed Cameras Help

Many cities nationwide have looked to minimize any auto-pedestrian incidents with speed cameras and reduced speed limits (one of the roads near my home just had the speed limit lowered from 30 to 25, though cars still probably go 35). But, as is usual in ‘Merica, drivers fight tactics like this. A recent New York Times article this week addressed a point of contention brewing in Brooklyn regarding speed cameras and school zones. Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who was quoted in the article, is a proponent for the speed cameras, but the article also pointed to the folks who think speed cameras are just a money grab and have no safety benefits. Cameras are also controversial in Chicago, particularly in the aftermath of due process violations. But they are also useful components of Vision Zero projects embraced in the U.S. to encourage road safety.

From what I’ve read and seen as a driver myself, speed cameras do in fact reduce speed, but once you get past the camera areas, drivers will accelerate, even if the speed limit is the same. I do this, too. I once got a speeding ticket because of it! And, as drivers, we’re all guilty of not being fully aware of our pedestrian surroundings. Our roads are designed this way, and our cars are designed this way. We accelerate into left turns to beat oncoming traffic only to slam the brakes to avoid a pedestrian. We make right turns on red, looking left for oncoming traffic, while failing to check if there are any pedestrians walking across to our right; my mother got hit by a car this exact way. She shattered her knee and had to get surgery, but fortunately, that was the extent of the damage. Speed cameras won’t prevent incidents like this. Drivers just have to be more aware.

The Need for Smarter Urban Designs

So what’s the solution? Smarter designs can help, especially in areas where minority and lower-class individuals are at higher risk for pedestrian incidents. Also on a global level, the U.S. is certainly ahead of other industrialized nations in terms of pedestrian fatalities, according to the World Health Organization’s 2015 Global Status Report on Road Safety. The U.S. has 1.5 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 people, whereas nearly all Western European countries rate at 1.0 or lower. Part of the reason for that may be due to how many European streetscapes are forced into 500-year-old urban layouts, while U.S. planners mostly had a clean slate and open land to build wide urban thoroughfares. I sometimes think about in the U.K., in which cars automatically stop at designated crosswalks, with flashing lights, angled line markers and everything, when pedestrians are in sight. In the U.S., some cities are working at this with either beg buttons to induce flashing lights to have drivers stop, or the lesser effective pedestrian stop placards in the middle of a non-intersection crosswalk, which several drivers tend to ignore or destroy altogether, in Chicago at least.

In the U.S., where the car dominates the right of way, tactical urbanism projects to improve street design could be a simple start to a longer-term issue. This can be done even by setting up some low-cost, temporary pylons. You can put a cone in the middle of the road, and people will white-knuckle slam on the brakes or swerve to avoid that cone, lest their car get damaged from whatever that cone is blocking. Why not set up a bunch of cones to reduce the lanes, force wider turns, or minimize speeds for proof of concept–that smarter street designs can reduce aggressive driving and in turn, pedestrian incidents. A few years ago, Alderman Pawar in Chicago’s 47th Ward led an even bolder approach and permanently reduced a stretch of Lawerence Ave. from four lanes to two, with full medians, improved sidewalks, and pedestrian crossings. Did drivers complain? Of course they did. But is the streetscape safer and more friendly to pedestrians, and therefore businesses? Yes!

This applies to improved safety for bicyclists, too, with quieter streets and bike lanes.

I feel if more local politicians take this approach, we can have improved street designs throughout the country. The grassroots efforts are there, but it will take a while. As drivers, we need to be more cognizant of pedestrians. As pedestrians, we are forced to learn that drivers aren’t always aware of their surrounding pedestrians, especially as cars become “smarter” and drivers are increasingly distracted. There will always be erratic drivers and all preventative measures won’t stop all pedestrian incidents. Everyone is human, makes mistakes, and innocently misses a street sign at times. But we should continually strive to design our urban areas a little better so that we have fewer tigers on the road and my kids won’t think that a siren means a pedestrian incident.

Photo by ArtisticOperations on Pixabay.

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