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:
— William Lindeke (@BillLindeke) December 20, 2015
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.”
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 streets.mn writer) Alex Cechinni tweeted the other day, by itself “distracted walking” is not a problem:
Spent 4 hours at a mall today. Near 100% distracted walking. Everyone survived. Huh. https://t.co/rDtbWO1uRx
— Alex Cecchini (@alexcecchini) December 19, 2015
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.
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.)
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?
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?
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.
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