The Star Tribune presents “The Pedestrian Menace”

strib-pedestrian-storyI like the Star Tribune. They do good work, and have had a lot of quality articles on urban design over the last year.

But this last weekend, the front page of the Star Tribune had a big headline front and center, the prime A1 slot, declaring “A Deadly Year for Distracted Walkers in Minnesota.” 

The article describes a disturbing trend in accidents involving people on foot, crossing the street or running to the LRT station, and being hit by cars or trains, all while using their cell phones.

But the front-page article was almost completely devoid of useful information, and likely did more harm than good. As other writers have pointed out, articles on wayward pedestrians have the effect of implying blame. Anyone who reads this Strib piece will be more likely to dismiss the real causes of pedestrian crashes — road design and aggressive driving — in favor of a fatalistic shrug. And given the actual state of pedestrian safety in the Twin Cities, adopting simple (and demonstrably false) trend narratives instead of actual investigative analysis is poor choice by our premier newspaper.

There’s no “there” there

In one sense, the Strib piece seems defensible. There has been a recent — and difficult-to-explain — rash of pedestrian crashes along the Twin Cities’ two light rail lines this month: three in two weeks. And because last year was particularly low point in pedestrian fatalities (“only” 17), the increase this year can look alarming.

But if you scroll down the Strib piece you see the following chart, which just dismantles any argument pointing to a trend in pedestrian injuries:

Another piece of hard-hitting data in the article is that “the percentage of pedestrians killed while using cell phones” has gone up “from 1% to 3.5% since 2004.”

cell phone subscriber growth chartWhoop-die-doo. Cell phone usage saturation has grown exponentially since then. That’s actually a surprisingly low number.

The article also cites a Department of Public Safety report on how pedestrians are “at fault” for 24% of crashes because of disregarding the law.

Failure to follow the rules of the road was the most commonly cited factor (24 percent) in pedestrian crashes in which the person on foot was found to be at fault, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety data. When drivers were at fault, 31 percent failed to yield the right of way and 20 percent were distracted, the data said

The article doesn’t describe where the other 75% of “fault” lies, but the real failing is in not thinking through the relationship between mode and severity of a crash. (And compare to a recent UK study on crashes, injuries and fault for bikes, where renegade bicyclists were only responsible for 2% of crashes.)

As (fellow writer) Alex Cechinni tweeted the other day, by itself “distracted walking” is not a problem:

It’s not that there’s no data in the piece, it’s even worse: the data directly contradicts the narrative.  It’s a ham-fisted attempt at a trend piece, cutely defining the term “petextrian,” a step backwards (into moving traffic?) for the conversation about safety in the Twin Cities.

Two recent pedestrian crashes


Brian Respler, vest-wearer.

Meanwhile, in the real world “pedestrians” (i.e. people trying to cross the street) get hit all the time for reasons that have nothing to do with cell phones.

Here are two examples from just this week. First we have a story from Duluth, where Brian Respler, 37-year-old father of four, was killed Saturday by a van driver on Main Street in an old, supposedly walkable part of the city. Brian’s death is particularly tragic because, as you can see in the Duluth News Tribune photo, he’s wearing a reflective pedestrian safety vest.

Brian worked the last 10 years at Goodwill Duluth, overcoming a learning disorder as he fulfilled multiple roles, including unloading trucks and picking up items from homes and businesses throughout Duluth. In a 2014 company blog post, Respler spoke about how much he enjoyed his work on the receiving dock, “I always try to keep a positive mentality when I come here,” he said. “I get to work with some really good people on the docks. I’ve learned from the best people back there on the docks.”

Outside work, Respler was an assistant den leader for his sons’ Webelo troop.

“He was a good father who provided good times for his children,” Lin said. “He was a good son, too.”

He seemed like he was a great guy. The funeral was Monday. 

(Note: per a recent story, the van driver was on drugs at the time.)


Classic 4-lane Death Road™ that I wrote about last year.

Meanwhile, in my old neighborhood, here’s another story from a regular morning on the unsafe streets of Saint Paul, where 28-year-old mom Bintu Fagaluke and her 3-year-old son Stephano, were hit by a driver who went around a stopped school bus.

Here are some grizzly details:

A mother and her 3-year-old son were crossing a St. Paul road holding hands, … when a school bus stopped for them. The mother peered around the bus, and police who later viewed surveillance video in the area say “it appeared she was being very cautious when she was crossing,” Linders said.

The video also showed all other traffic stopping for the pedestrians, but [the] car “passed the stopped traffic at a speed that appeared to be in excess of the posted speed,” according to the criminal complaint. [The driver’s] “brake lights did not come on until after he struck the pedestrians,” the complaint said.

The car struck Fagaluke and Stephano when they’d almost made it to the other side. The force of the collision caused mother and son to be thrown into the air and the boy was apparently knocked out of his boots.

They’re both in the hospital with broken bones and head injuries, but the point is that this crash had nothing to do with cell phones. In fact, you can’t imagine a more careful “crossing the street” scenario.

Admittedly, these are the two most tragic examples. But I could have used so many others. Check out this list released on Facebook by the Saint Paul Police Department earlier this week:

Six…that’s the number of crashes in Saint Paul in the last week in which pedestrians have been hurt–some critically.

– Dec. 14: Male struck in crosswalk at Cretin and Marshall
– Dec. 14: Female hurt after being hit at Grand and Macalester
– Dec. 14: Male suffers head injuries at Seventh and Jackson
– Dec. 16: Hit and run leaves male injured at Charles and Virginia
– Dec. 17: Wabasha and Cesar Chavez, blind man, head injury
– Dec. 18: Mom and 3-year-old struck at Maryland and Albemarle–both transported with serious injuries; driver arrested.

Take your pick — the blind man or the hit-and-run. Cell phones have almost nothing to do with people getting run over trying to walk around the Twin Cities.

What would a good article do?


Problem solved! (Image from Washington state.)

I believe that the Strib journalist, Tim Harlow, has his heart in the right place. I’m guessing that the editors preferred the easy, and misleading, narrative. (It’s similar to a previous case of anti-bike trolling.) But the framing has the unfortunate effect of encouraging people to draw the wrong conclusions. 

Here’s how the piece ends:

Ian Futterer, 22, who commutes on foot to his job in downtown Minneapolis, said he’s seen enough to make him a super-cautious pedestrian. At least twice a month he said he has had to jump out of the way in a crosswalk as a motorist sped by. Once he was clipped by a driver’s side mirror.

“I do feel it’s more dangerous out there,” he said. “I put my phone away. I act appropriately. I don’t want to be blood on the sidewalk or a statistic.”

That anecdote, a man trying to cross the street in a crosswalk almost getting hit by a driver, should make people think about collective driving behavior and crosswalk design, not whether pedestrians should use cell phones.

There’s a lot of good articles that could be written on pedestrian safety, crash trends, street design, and the role of cell phones in our everyday urban environment. Here are some interesting questions:

  • What are the different variables that make safe LRT station design? Why were there so many crashes this month?
  • What is the science behind phone usage, especially for drivers? Is there anything anyone can do about it?
  • How can street design reduce aggressive driving? Is there anything anyone can do about it?
padded lampposts

Safety first!

There are certainly more angles to study, though coming up with a catchy neologism might require more creativity. (See “sneckdown.”) If you want to be cute, how about a piece on padded lampposts, like Brick Lane in London?

Stay tuned for a real article on pedestrian safety soon, probably in someplace other than the Star Tribune.

P.S. The title of this post comes from an idea I had years ago to start a metal band called “War On Cars.” The debut album would be titled “The Pedestrian Menace.” Now accepting drummers and front men, and someone with a van to drive the whole band around.

26 thoughts on “The Star Tribune presents “The Pedestrian Menace”

          1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

            Famous Dutch traffic planner Hans Monderman was famous for walking backwards without looking into a busy “shared space” intersection during interviews just to show how nothing bad would happen.

            1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

              Sadly Monderman’s trick mostly only worked for about the first year of a new shared space. After drivers got use to the new layout they began driving through much less cautiously which is why most (or now all?) of the Monderman spaces have been redesigned to current CROW standards.

  1. James WardenJames Warden

    The author wrote:

    “The article also cites a Department of Public Safety report on how pedestrians are ‘at fault’ for 24% of crashes because of disregarding the law.”

    Actually, the article doesn’t say that, which makes its failure to include context even worse. It says only that *of the cases where pedestrians were at fault*, 24 percent of those cases were due to disregarding the law. So we don’t even know whether pedestrians were responsible for 1 percent of crashes or 100 percent of crashes. All we know is that lawbreaking is responsible for 24 percent of some unknown number of cases where pedestrians were at fault.

    The best context would have been to start by saying what proportion of crashes are caused by pedestrians so that readers know everything that follows is just talking about a subset of the overall data — and likely a much smaller subset. As it stands now, the average reader probably thinks 1 out of 4 crashes are caused by pedestrians breaking the law.

    1. Wayne

      That statistical sleight of hand was something I noticed too when reading the article yesterday. It’s incredibly misleading and makes it seem far worse than it is to fit a predeterminted narrative. F- for journalistic standards and integrity here.

  2. Wayne

    Next week on the Star Tribune: Murder victims at fault for not wearing body armor and for possibly knowing a person capable of killing them, followed by fashion tips for rape victims to help them avoid the male gaze.

    Seriously the strib article is utter garbage and does a disservice to everyone killed or injured by a car and their families. They need to fire the editor that either pushed for or allowed this and issue a public apology for it. This is why journalism is dying.

  3. Evan RobertsEvan

    First, it’s a truthiness problem. Everyone knows that people are much more distracted, because smart phones (subtext: kids these days!).

    Second, it’s a category error. Like we tell young children, watch where you’re putting your feet. And it’s certainly true that if pedestrians were even more cautious we’d avoid some accidents.
    But that doesn’t make pedestrian distraction the major cause of accidents, or even the major cause of changing accidents. Really telling how the article concluded with two anecdotes that were entirely about the culpability of drivers for accidents, and not about distracted pedestrians.

  4. GlowBoy

    I’ve been steadily fuming about this article since it ran the other day. This is the kind of misleading victim-blaming garbage I got used to in the Oregonian, but towards which this paper seemed to exercise a bit more restraint. Did Soucheray start writing for the Strib?

    In a state where drivers don’t seem to have the slightest regard for pedestrians, this is basically a feel-good piece that tells drivers it’s OK to keep it up. Pedestrians are bad people for texting all the time, and it’s their fault if you hit them.

    Of course in reality, distracted drivers are probably responsible for many times more pedestrian deaths than distracted pedestrians are, but that’s not as happy a headline to print just before Christmas.

    In Minnesota, pedestrian deaths have more than doubled this year over last. Does anyone really think that’s largely because so many more pedestrians were texting than last year? Oh, and bicyclist deaths have doubled, while motorcyclist deaths have increased 35% over last year: is that because they’re texting too?

  5. GlowBoy

    I’ve been pretty ticked off since that article ran. Same kind of victim-blaming garbage I see constantly in the Oregonian, but StarTribune generally seems a little less inclined to run.

    I’m sure texting drivers are responsible for many times more pedestrian deaths than texting pedestrians are.

    In a year when Minnesota pedestrian deaths have more than doubled versus the previous year, it’s pretty clear that the biggest problem isn’t distracted pedestrians. Bicyclist deaths have also doubled this year, and motorcyclist deaths are up 35% over last year – are they texting all the time too?

  6. Samantha H

    Bill, I really like this piece, but would have preferred a version of it as an op-Ed piece for the strib, where the readers could actually learn something. The press on this stuff late has been incredibly lacking in context. In any case, thanks for writing it!

  7. Andy SingerAndy Singer

    Nice piece Bill! (and excellent list of questions for any journalist writing about this stuff). Part of the reason that the LRT stations are dangerous is that they were designed by an automobile-oriented county engineer. These issues were pointed out to him but he and the public process (which the MET Council ran) ignored this public input (from SPBC, TLC and others) in favor of moving as many cars through the University Avenue corridor as possible. Pedestrian safety will improve when we stop using “Level Of Service (for cars)” as the design standard for all our urban streets.

  8. Steve Durrant

    Drivers that complain about ‘invisible’ pedestrians or cyclists take great exception to being told ‘you didn’t see them’ versus ‘they’re not visible’. The language of this conversation is very interesting and important. Thanks for the article.

    1. Monte Castleman

      “You didn’t see them” vs “They’re not Visible” do have widely different implications. Imagine a pedestrian wearing blaze orange in a marked crosswalk who has a walk signal being hit by a motorist that’s going 20 mph over the speed limit while sending a text message. “You didn’t see them” seems appropriate. Now imagine a pedestrian wearing a black hoody that’s jaywalking on an unlit, rural 70 mph freeway where the motorist is driving the speed limit and paying reasonable attention to the road. “He wasn’t visible” sounds more appropriate there. We’ve decided it’s an acceptable risk to allow motorists to overdrive their headlights (about 40 mph or so) since aside from deer, most object in the road that would be random hazards, like other cars, have lights of their own.

      Of course most car vs pedestrian crashes fall somewhere in between these scenarios.

      1. Wayne

        Jaywalking is an invented crime made up to victim blame in the first place. And why should I have to dress a certain way to avoid being murdered by a driver? Do you tell women how to dress so they aren’t assaulted by men? It’s the same concept.

        And no, most car vs pedestrian crashes fall within the bounds of the CROSSWALK–the one tiny legal bit of road left for us to walk on. We’re still disrespected and killed at an absurd rate for a supposedly ‘civilized’ society.

        Just because some of you have deemed my life acceptable collateral damage for your convenience doesn’t mean I accept this, and I will fight for my safety and right to survive. If you hit me with your car you’d better hope I don’t survive it.

  9. Ted Hathaway

    In the old movie “Little Big Man”, the character of Old Lodge Skins dreams that he has become invisible to enemies and wanders through the mayhem of a battle gleefully exclaiming, “I’m invisible!” and somehow manages to avoid being struck by a single bullet. I always keep that in mind whenever I’m on a bicycle or on foot while negotiating vehicular traffic. I just assume that “I’m invisible” to drivers – that they don’t see me and I should act accordingly. I never assume a driver can see me, much less will stop for me. I’m invisible to them.

    “I never saw [fill in name of deceased victim here]” is such a common excuse with drivers who have struck pedestrians or cyclists. But, I have to say as a driver of cars, there’s something to that excuse. The sight lines inside a car are abysmal in comparison to those of a pedestrian or a cyclist. They’re peering out through little port holes from inside of this metal box. They’re also probably moving at a much higher speed, all the while looking out (poorly) for the same traffic the pedestrian/cyclist is contending with. To make matters worse, the driver is likely to be far more in tune with other vehicular traffic than they are with foot/bike traffic. You might has well be invisible.

    A “distracted” pedestrian hardly deserves their fate, but the deck is certainly stacked against them. The vehicular operator is doing battle with his peers. The pedestrian might as well be road kill or the insect on their windshield. They aren’t looking for you, much less do they see you. Act accordingly.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      If you can’t see what’s around you, slow down or don’t drive. That it’s too hard for a driver to see bikes and people should be damning, not a defense.

      Also, a bike is a vehicle too.

  10. Rachel Q

    Thanks for bringing this horrendous reporting to our attention. I am disgusted by the misinformation being spread to the public through articles like this. Keep up the good fight!

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