Thursday, January 17, 2008

Bad Carma

I had two near misses with cars today, ironically enough in the same intersection. As such, I was inspired to write a post on pedestrian safety issues. On my way to work today, I was crossing an intersection on the UM campus that I cross every day, Prienkert and Campus Drives. This is the home stretch, my workplace is on the corner, and since I'm on a university campus, pedestrians are often treated with a good bit of respect. Anyway, As I entered the crosswalk, a vehicle on the far side on the intersection came to a stop. The driver, who could have safely made a right turn before I crossed his path, waited until I was in front of his vehicle before proceeding. Although I was trying to make eye-contact, he never looked left or ahead. My yell and hood slap, though, caused him to brake before colliding with me. He did shake his fist at me, presumably for the slap--but I think a full-scale collision would have been a less desirable alternative.

If that had been the end of it, I would probably not given another thought to pedestrian issues today. But as I left my office, bound for the Metro, I crossed the very same crosswalk. Here, left-turning traffic from Prienkert (moving in the same direction as me) has the right of way over oncoming vehicles from Campus Drive. As I entered the crosswalk, I looked to see a left-turning car stop, even though she didn't have a stop sign. I thought, therefore, that she was stopping for me (I had, after all, made it halfway across the street already). She was, however, apparently only stopping to make sure that the oncoming car also stopped. Without checking the crosswalk, she swung left and almost stopped in time. Her bumper did hit me mid-calf though. I was uninjured, thankfully, but I did miss the UM shuttle by 30 seconds.

Anyway while I seem to have gotten off scot free, many people don't. According to the National Safety Council, almost 6,000 pedestrians are killed by cars every year in the United States. Another 84,000 are injured in similar accidents. Indeed, every hour 10 pedestrians are killed or injured in the United States.

Speed is a major factor when it comes to pedestrian fatalities. For a vehicle traveling at 20 miles an hour, the chance that a struck pedestrian will die is only 5%. At 30 miles per hour, the rate climbs to over 40%, and vehicles traveling 40 miles an hour are 85% likely to kill a pedestrian in an accident. This has a lot to do with reaction time in addition to kinetics. Every time speed doubles, stopping time quadruples and so does the kinetic energy absorbed by the object collided with.

The State of Maryland requires that drivers stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk on their half of the roadway or approaching their half from an adjacent lane. Drivers are also prohibited from passing anyone stopped to allow a pedestrian to cross the street. This is not a blank check for pedestrians, though. For instance, pedestrians only have the right of way in crosswalks; they must yield it to other vehicles at all other times. Even when a crosswalk is present, though, pedestrians must follow any signals present. And state law prohibits pedestrians from entering a crosswalk if a driver does not have sufficient time to stop. For the safety of all involved, pedestrians and drivers have an obligation to be responsible.

When accidents occur, people are wont to point fingers. And while someone is usually at fault, the perspective of context should be considered, especially for planners. In order to reduce pedestrian-driver conflicts, planners must address street design. For instance, wide lanes encourage higher speeds, reducing the ability of drivers to see or stop for pedestrians. Similarly, wide turning radii (especially for right-hand turns at intersections) encourage drivers to keep moving, which makes it especially difficult for pedestrians to enter intersections. Additionally, a general lack of sidewalks and crosswalks can make getting around without a car difficult. If we restrict pedestrians to crosswalks, we must make sure that adequate crosswalk placements are made.

A large problem with current traffic planning in the United States is that design sends mixed messages. For instance, I have encountered many instances of a sidewalk intersecting a roadway and continuing on the other side, but with no crosswalk present. In this case, pedestrians are often left to fend for themselves. In many cities, while the automobile signals function all the time, the ped signals only operate if a pedestrian pushes a button. Often times this means that pedestrians get to the light a second after it turns green, but have to wait for the full cycle to get a walk sign. Fort Worth, Texas was the first city I encountered where every signal automatically generated a walk signal when a traffic signal turned green.

One of the current efforts of planners focuses on traffic calming. Traffic calming means making context the foundation for infrastructure design. In the realm of pedestrian design, this can include crosswalk treatments like speed tables, islands, or bulbouts. Traffic calming can serve many different interests, like keeping through traffic out of neighborhoods or lowering speeds around congested areas. Another national initiative is the concept of designing streets so that they work for all users, drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users. This idea is called Complete Streets. Of course, complete streets are grounded in context, and each instance of is a unique solution tailored to the needs of a particular community.

These efforts are apparently making a difference. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there has been a reduction in pedestrian fatalities of 35% since 1975. Today, pedestrian fatalities represent only 11% of all crash deaths (down from 17% in 1975).

So America is moving in the right direction. The last several years has shown increasing pedestrian warning and safety devices appearing across the country. This region is no different. The District of Columbia leads the nation in its use of pedestrian countdown timers (like the one top left at E Street and 17th NW). Late last year, Montgomery County, Maryland Executive Isiah Leggett announced a pedestrian safety initiative. The initiative hopes to reduce the number of pedestrian and bicycle related crashes through a variety of efforts from inclusive planning to physical changes in the (sub)urban environment.

1 comment:

Chris L said...

Glad you're ok man! Between drivers gabbing on their phones, text messaging, and generally driving while distracted, this sort of thing is becoming all too common

I can't find the statistic but I heard that pedestrian fatalities in the district have actually gone up. The distractions of modern life definitely play a role, but it think it has gotten worse with traffic as well. Drivers sp.end more time sitting in traffic, so when they finally have a clear stretch its pedal-to-the-medal time. The countdown timers are nice, but don't matter much when DC police don't enforce them. Here's my personal pedestrian safety plan for the district:

1) "Road diets". DC streets are the widest of any of the major northeast cities. I love the L'Enfant plan but I don't think Mass or Penn avenues really need to be 6 lanes. If you make streets as wide as highways, drivers will treat them as such (especially those suburban MD and VA commuters) What we have is the opposite of traffic calming...call it traffic agitating. Reconfiguring these wide streets could calm traffic and create larger sidewalks as a bonus.

2) ENFORCE the traffic laws!! I see cars running red lights every single day in the District. No one even bats an eyelash if a car runs the yellow and it turns red before they've left the intersection. It has become normal. That's a little messed up, no? But people will continue to do it as long as DC doesn't enforce the traffic laws. I'm not even sure DCPD has a traffic division...I've never seen a car marked as such anyway. I've never seen someone pulled over for a traffic violation either in the 3 years I've been here. How hard would it be to create a traffic division and start ticketing aggressively?

3) Traffic lights need SHORTER durations. Nothing makes you feel like driving like a maniac like a 3-minute traffic light. I think Philly is a great example of how to do this right. Most lights in the city are 20 seconds at most. 20 second red, 20 second green. You always feel like you're moving, and never feel like you have to gun it to make up time. Of course pedestrians have less time to cross the streets, but the roads are also much thinner and easier to cross than in DC (See Road-diets, #1)

4) A critical mass of pedestrians. This should take care of itself as DC gains residents and becomes more walkable. I feel like there's a tipping point where there is such a large amount of people crossing each crosswalk that drivers are forced to pay more attention and yield. K Street on a weekday morning is a great example. Pedestrians rule the crossings and there's little chance that cars will run lights because there's simply too many people in the way. Its for this reason that I've always felt safer crossing streets in New York than in DC...safety in numbers. I hope the pedestrian experience in DC resembles New York's someday.

Thats all I can think of for now but I have more. Pedestrian safety is a big issue for me and one that I think really needs to be addressed here. I'm anxious to see DC's new pedestrian plan when it's released to see if the city is up to the challenge.