Monday, March 31, 2014

When did we start blaming pedestrians for being hit by cars?

A colleague in Montana circulated this article that explains the history of how we view pedestrian fatalities.

It used to be that motorists that hit or killed pedestrians were viewed in the same way as someone who drive a motorcycle down a crowded hallway: That's just not acceptable. You shouldn't operate a large, fast, heavy machine in a place where there are a lot of people.

A typical busy street scene on Sixth Avenue in New York City shows how pedestrians ruled the roadways before automobiles arrived, circa 1903. Via Shorpy.

Now we just expect that pedestrians will stay out of the way of cars.

There are so many good quotes in the article, I won't even start to pick them out. But the old news stories, cartoons, and ads are also well worth the click. It follows the change in our society from drivers needing to watch for pedestrians, through changes in attitudes brought about in part by the auto industry; how traffic controls developed; and the history of traffic safety, including ad campaigns that target unsafe behavior.

In the Netherlands - which arguably has the highest bicycle mode split in the world - there is strict liability on the driver's part if s/he hits a bicyclist or pedestrian. That is, a collision is assumed to be the fault of the driver, and the circumstances when the driver is not considered 100 percent at fault are very narrow.

Strict liability is the law in all but five European Union countries, and there is a campaign to change the law in the UK. In the U.S., we struggle to pass Vulnerable User Laws.

Just after reading that article, I saw two items on our local TV news website about kids being hit by cars. One was a child that rode his bike out into the street from a driveway. And the driver didn't even stop! The other was a child killed when he ran out from between two parked cars. Both happened on residential streets.

Sure, these days, we think, "Well, those parents should watch their kids. The kids should learn that they have to be careful and stay out of the street."

But as the article about the history of pedestrians and motor vehicles in public roadways points out, streets are public spaces, and it used to be that drivers were expected to watch out for other road users, including people walking on the public right of way. We used to realize that kids are to be expected in residential areas.

We even allow drivers to break the law with impunity, as long as it's just a little bit breaking the law. Everyone assumes that "5 over" is OK for speeding, and the police generally won't write a ticket if you are not more than "10 over." If a driver is going below the speed limit, s/he is considered a menace and a freak.

What difference does 5 mph make? Well, a pedestrian hit at 20 mph has a 95 percent chance of surviving. A pedestrian hit at 40 mph has an 15 percent chance of surviving.

30,000 people are killed by motor vehicles every year in the U.S.: drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, passengers, etc. Any other product with that kind of safety record would be pulled from the store shelves within a day. Yet we let the carnage continue year after year. When is will we say, "Enough!"?