I was up bright and early Tuesday morning — actually it was DARK and early — to join a group of Highland Park residents in a demonstration of the state’s pedestrian crossing law at a mid-block crosswalk on Montreal Avenue. The roadway has recently been reconfigured, reducing the number of traffic lanes from four to three, and re-striping the crosswalk with high visibility markings and a pedestrian crosswalk sign. Most of the people crossing the street at 7:00 am were students headed to the Highland Park Middle School on the south side of Montreal. But despite the newly striped crosswalk and signs giving advance warning, many cars still did not yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk, as required by state law.
Kevin Gallatin, chair of the Highland District Council’s Transportation Committee, organized the early morning demonstration, with support provided by Sergeant Jeremy Ellison and squad cars from the Saint Paul Police Department. The goal was to educate people about the state law that requires cars to yield to pedestrians at every corner and in a marked crosswalk. After being briefed about the importance of staying safe, volunteers crossed back and forth across the street, carrying signs to alert drivers to the need to stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk. Drivers who failed to yield were pulled over by police cars and given a warning or a citation. By 7:30 am, most of the students were in school, and the volunteers packed up their signs and gathered for a debriefing session. What could be done to make the crossing safer? Better street lighting? The addition of LED flashing lights on the pedestrian crossing signs. A number of ideas were offered for further research and consideration.
The Crosswalk Law
This demonstration was part of an initiative that began several years ago following the death of a Macalester student who was hit by a car and killed as she crossed the street in the crosswalk at Oxford and Grand. Since that time, each year, the first week in August is designated as Pedestrian Safety Awareness Week. In 2015, with a grant from MnDOT, the Saint Paul Police Department was able to provide enforcement for 16 pedestrian safety events. Volunteers and police talked with several hundred people, both on foot and in cars, about the Minnesota crosswalk law, and by the end of the week, 157 citations had been issued to drivers who failed to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk.
One of the most interesting new results from the 2015 week was to learn why drivers didn’t stop for the pedestrian(s) in the crosswalk. Police officers gathered this information by asking each driver they cited, and recording the responses verbatim in their reports. About half the cited drivers said they either didn’t see the pedestrian(s) in the crosswalk (59) or thought it was too late to stop safely by the time they saw the pedestrian(s) (20).
Only 19 drivers claimed they didn’t know the Minnesota pedestrian crosswalk law, while 34 respondents thought the crosswalk law didn’t apply to their situation, and gave a variety of reasons. Ten of these said they saw the pedestrian(s), but didn’t stop because it was not clear they were trying to cross the street. Most of the others did not think they had to stop because the pedestrian(s) was not in the lane they were driving in. Typical responses from this group: “They were not in the lane.”, “I didn’t see it as a violation because he wasn’t even halfway over.“ or “I thought they were already across.”
Among the other reasons given were that they were in a hurry. “I’m late to my kid’s baseball game,” said one driver. Another responded: “I’m working and in a hurry”, then acknowledged, “I know that’s not a good excuse.” A number of drivers pointed out that “No one else was stopping.” And several people claimed they were lost or confused. “I was lost and didn’t know what to do,” said one driver. Another answered: “I was confused because of the construction, but I did wave at them.” 13 respondents indicated they were sorry for not stopping, while others were angry at being stopped. Some said they didn’t know why they failed to yield to the pedestrian(s), or they refused to answer.
Vehicle citations and driver distraction
Although the pedestrian demonstrations were focused on drivers who failed to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk, the police also issued a good number of citations for other violations, including 6 seat belt violations, 5 for looking at a phone or texting, 4 red light violations, 4 with no proof of insurance, 3 for speeding, 2 for driving after their license was revoked, and 2 with expired tabs. There were also two arrests, one for an outstanding warrant, and the other a felony warrant for fleeing police, auto theft & DWI (high on meth).
What we learned from the drivers’ responses is that half the drivers did not see the pedestrian(s) in the crosswalk, or did not see them until it was too late to stop safely. This indicates they were not paying close enough attention. Were they distracted, perhaps by texting or reading an incoming message on their ever-present smart phone? Were they hurrying to get through the next traffic light before it turned red? Were they driving while impaired, or drowsy? Were they making a right turn while looking left for a gap in oncoming traffic? Was the sun in their eyes, or lighting inadequate at dusk? In future Pedestrian Safety Awareness events, we may want to try to dig more deeply into why drivers failed to notice pedestrians in the crosswalk to determine what steps to take to make sure drivers are more focused on driving and more attentive to pedestrians in their path, especially at crosswalks.
It will also be important to continue our Pedestrian Safety Awareness demonstrations to educate people about the pedestrian crosswalk law and to provide more enforcement. Although only 20% of cited drivers claimed they were not aware of the state law that requires drivers to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk, an additional 22% had questions about how the crosswalk law should be applied and when cars are required to stop. For example, if pedestrians are on the sidewalk, what actions indicate a clear intent to cross the street, requiring cars to yield? Or if they’re already in the crosswalk, but not in the driver’s lane, can the driver proceed when they’ve crossed his/her lane or when they’re approaching from the other side of the street? This indicates there may be a need to provide additional clarification of the crosswalk law, perhaps even to amend it, requiring action by MnDOT and/or the state legislature.
Is Pedestrian Safety Awareness Week working?
In evaluating the effectiveness of the Pedestrian Safety Awareness Week in August, volunteers were generally satisfied that our efforts provided an important reminder to drive safely and obey the law, not only for the drivers who were cited, but also for hundreds of others who passed by on foot or in a car. Still, to make a significant impact, we concluded that one week in August was not enough; we agreed we’d need to schedule demonstrations throughout the year. Tuesday morning’s event provided an excellent kick off for the coming year, as we begin to plan for an expanded schedule of demonstrations across the city in 2016, with a particular focus on areas like the East Side and the West Side that have not yet participated.
The volunteers and police officers who got up early Tuesday morning provide a clear demonstration that pedestrian safety is a high priority for both community members and police in Saint Paul. Other partners for this project include the Metro Area Toward Zero Deaths initiative and St Paul Walks, a program of St Paul Smart Trips. And these are not the only groups working on pedestrian safety. There are a number of City policies and implementation steps already in place or proposed, including the Complete Streets Policy, the use of roadway planning principles from the Street Design Manual (although the manual has still not been adopted), the $42.5 million 8-80 funding and creation of an 8-80 Fellowship position for 18 months, and the prospect of launching a Safe Routes to Schools programs, beginning with training sessions and submission of a funding application.
Many community organizations are also actively involved in efforts to make walking safer. Among recent initiatives are the District Councils Collaborative’s (DCC) Dale Street and Snelling Avenue projects, pedestrian crash mapping, and work with the disability community to improve access to transit; Friendly Streets Initiative (FSI) projects on Cretin (completing the Grand Round) and Fairview Avenue; the Better Bridges initiative (designed to improve the walkability of bridges over I-94), led by FSI in collaboration with the DCC, Saint Paul Design Center, and district councils; and the St Paul Walks pedestrian safety education initiative, now supported by a new Green Corps intern.
These policies and initiatives all provide evidence that momentum is building in Saint Paul to make sure pedestrians can safely get to their destinations on foot. But it’s still not enough. After the October 1st fatality at the corner of West 7th Street and Saint Clair Avenue, I wrote an article that called for a more urgent and multi-faceted response to stop preventable pedestrian crashes.
We need a ‘Vision Zero’
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing intensive research on “Vision Zero”, a policy that’s being adopted by a growing number of cities across the United States. Vision Zero is a strategy to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all. Vision Zero policies acknowledge that traffic deaths and severe injuries are preventable and set the goal of eliminating both in a set time frame with clear, measurable strategies and benchmarks.
Recently, a Vision Zero Cities Network has been set up to support and share resources amongst cities with Vision Zero policies in place or pending.
“Vision Zero is a multidisciplinary approach, bringing together diverse and necessary stakeholders to address this complex problem. In the past, meaningful, cross-disciplinary collaboration among local traffic planners and engineers, police officers, policymakers, and public health professionals has not been the norm. Vision Zero acknowledges that there are many factors that contribute to safe mobility — including roadway design, speeds, enforcement, behaviors, technology, and policies — and sets clear goals to achieve the shared goal of zero fatalities and severe injuries.”
Isn’t it time for Saint Paul to join other cities that are adopting Vision Zero? After just a year, New York City already reports substantial progress toward achieving their Vision Zero Action Plan goals. (See NYC Vision Zero Scorecard.) Meanwhile, San Francisco has developed a Two Year Action Plan designed to ensure that the city is on track to meet the goal of eliminating all traffic deaths by 2024.
In my next post, I’ll talk more about Vision Zero, how it’s working in other cities, and how Saint Paul can step up to join the Vision Zero movement, designed to eliminate preventable traffic deaths for all roadway users, including people on foot, in a wheelchair, on a bicycle, or riding in a car, truck, bus or light rail train.