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Advocates are tired of “tone deaf” messaging that puts the onus for safety on walkers and not on vehicles.
Few words anger pedestrian advocates more than a transportation agency telling would-be walkers to “wear bright clothing.”
State and local governments often trot out the advice as days get darker and pedestrian fatalities become more common. The guidance typically comes with other shop-worn suggestions like “carry a flashlight at night,” “make eye contact with drivers,” “avoid distractions” or “cross streets at sidewalks.”
However helpful the suggestions are, pedestrian advocates object to the idea that the onus for the safety of walkers should be on the walkers themselves, rather than the drivers who act dangerously or the road designers who create unsafe conditions for pedestrians.
“Walking around outside, the danger of the driver is constantly there,” said Tom Flood, the founder of the rovélo creative marketing firm and a frequent critic of government and auto industry traffic safety messaging. “When we see these seasonal, box-checking campaigns, they’re really just boilerplate. They’re the same thing over and over. It pollutes the mainstream discussion, when we put the blame on the vulnerable victim. It confuses people about the root causes.”
Flood says people often tell him that police departments and other government agencies have to “do something” given the “current realities” of the rising number of pedestrian deaths in the last decade. “These realities are only current because we haven’t done anything else,” he said. “We keep maintaining this system where we tell kids, ‘Throw this vest on, good luck and look both ways.’ These messages are tone deaf and just not rooted in reality for the average human.”
In recent years, more government agencies have directed their safety warnings toward drivers, especially as the Biden administration has pushed for a “safe systems” approach on road safety, said Jane Terry, the vice president of government affairs at the National Safety Council. The group has been pushing transportation agencies to adopt the strategy, which requires improvements throughout the transportation industry, including redundant systems that reduce the risk that one mistake would lead to crashes that kill or injure road users.
The federal plan calls for “safer people, safer roads, safer vehicles, safer speeds and better post-crash care.”
“Safer users are part of that,” Terry acknowledged, “but historically I would say that has been overrepresented. There’s been too much focus on that. We haven’t necessarily paid attention to the other elements like safer speeds and safer roads.”
“If you think about aviation, you’re not going to blame a pilot as the sole cause for an aviation incident,” she said. “You’re going to look at a more holistic set of inputs that actually led to that event. We want to take that concept and apply that to roadways.”
Angie Schmitt, a Cleveland planner and author of the 2020 book, Right of Way: Race, Class and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America, said many safety messages aimed at pedestrians argue that all road users have a responsibility to make the streets safe. But that’s a “false equivalence,” she said in an interview. “Pedestrians are completely defenseless. They’re not hurting anyone. They can’t. There’s a real power differential there.”
The imbalance isn’t just on the road, she added. Drivers have more political power, and the professionals who are creating messages for pedestrians often don’t understand the challenges they face.
“A lot of the people designing the safety messages are middle class or higher. They’re not put in those kinds of dangerous situations that many pedestrians are put in,” Schmitt explained. Many pedestrians are not young or able-bodied. They often live in neighborhoods where there is no good infrastructure for walking. In 2021, nearly 7 out of 10 pedestrians who died perished in places where no sidewalks were listed on the crash report. “It’s just a failure of empathy, so it becomes a scolding ritual,” Schmitt said. “I don’t think it helps anything.”
One recent video ad from a city in British Columbia, Canada, generated a big backlash online for that reason. The commercial shows a white teenage girl walking down a sidewalk in the rain, raising her hood and putting in wireless headphones. She comes to a signalized crossing, pushes the button that activates flashing lights and walks across. Meanwhile, a man driving a car fumbles with his phone, takes his eyes off the road and brakes just in time to avoid the pedestrian in the crosswalk. As the scene fades to black, a message appears: “Pedestrian safety is a two-way street.”
Flood remixed the spot to deliver a different message, showing how much more is expected of pedestrians than drivers. “We ask our children to do everything ‘right,’” the spot says, “so adult drivers can do everything wrong.”
Flood, who lives outside of Toronto and drives a car regularly, said the problems with traffic safety are similar in the U.S. and Canada. “There’s a tragic commonality. They’re the same messages. You can swap them out anywhere globally,” he said. “To me, it’s really about reframing the discussion and flipping everything we’ve done on its head and … exposing [it] for what it is.”
“Most people are reasonable, and when they’re exposed to something that shows in a digestible way how far we’ve let this unchecked reverence for the automobile go, I think people will have a moment of clarity,” he said.
In Ohio, Schmitt said pedestrian deaths have nearly doubled in the last decade, which proves “this kind of messaging has not worked.”
“We know what works,” she said. “There is a lot of evidence even in the United States now. Places like Jersey City and Hoboken have almost eliminated traffic deaths on the roads. But it’s a much more difficult process than firing off a few Instagram posts that blame the victim.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.