Not Seeing Pedestrians is Not an Excuse

My kids always seems to be running into each other, knocking each other down, and otherwise hurting each other.

“But I didn’t try to,” they’ll say.

“You have to try not to,” I respond.

Kids have to learn to control their movements so they don’t hurt the people around them. For example, if you throw your head back while sitting on your big sister’s lap, your head will hit her head. My daughter spent weeks recovering from the concussion her brother gave her, but he still doesn’t understand that she suffered as a result of what he did. He’s three.

We don’t seem to connect death and injury to pedestrians on our streets with our everyday driving habits, as though we are all three-year-olds when we get behind the wheel. No one tries to hit a pedestrian, but too many drivers aren’t trying not to.

A couple of days ago, I was biking with my two youngest children in the bike trailer to my oldest daughter’s school to see her class play. We were crossing the street off a multi-use trail, in the crosswalk with the pedestrian walk signal. A left turning driver nearly hit us. I screamed and swerved my bike. She stopped just short of my bike trailer. She and I had both been waiting in our respective places for the light to turn. Had she even made a cursory look at the corner where pedestrians wait, she would have seen me. She would have known that I was going to cross, and would have yielded to me.

As she mouthed, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, to me. I thought, You almost killed my children.

Then yesterday, a woman walking in a crosswalk with the signal was killed by a left turning driver at Arkwright and Cayuga on Saint Paul’s East Side.

Bill Lindeke has written over and over about how road design contributes to pedestrian deaths. The Saint Paul Stop for Me campaign focuses on enforcement to educate drivers to prioritize the rights of pedestrians. As a driver, I have to take responsibility for how I drive, and like every other driver, I don’t want to hurt or kill anyone with my car. When I learned to drive, I was taught habits to keep myself and others safe on the road. For example, I learned to look left before turning right, to ensure no cars are coming from the left. As a new driver, I had to think about it at each turn, intentionally remembering to look to the left. But after hundreds and then thousands of times doing it, I didn’t have to think about it. I just look.

But I did not learn driving habits to ensure the safety of pedestrians as a new driver. Of course, I was told not to hit them, but I was not taught specific habits that would prevent me from hitting them. I got my driver’s license in Minnesota in 1995, a year before the legislature passed the law requiring drivers to yield the right of way to pedestrians in a crosswalk. For most of the years I have been driving in Minnesota, I didn’t know I needed to yield to pedestrians and I formed driving habits that did not place the pedestrian’s right of way over mine as a driver. I imagine most drivers older than me could say the same. I don’t know what driver education looks like today, but considering what I observe other drivers doing, I don’t think it has changed much.

Once I moved to Saint Paul, I encountered a lot more pedestrians on the street than I had living in the suburbs. I learned what the crosswalk law requires of drivers. I would stop for pedestrians when I saw them, but sometimes I didn’t see them in time to stop. I realized that I needed to change how I drive, because it is not enough to yield to pedestrians when I happen to see them. I needed to try harder.

So I have done intentional work to develop two new driving habits. They have become automatic for me, like looking left before I turn right. These are habits I will teach my kids when they learn to drive. These are habits every driver should develop.

The first habit is to look for pedestrians. (Seems obvious, right?) I started practicing a visual sweep each time I went through an intersection, not just for cars, but for people on the corners. This took intentional effort, and more effort to decide whether the pedestrian intended to cross. It’s not hard to determine whether someone is intending to cross the street, but until it’s habitual, you go through a mental process to decide whether you will stop: I see a person at the corner. I see a bus stop. I decide the person is waiting for a bus. I don’t stop. I see a person at the corner. The person is looking towards oncoming cars. I decide the person wants to cross the street. I stop.

When I started doing this, slight distractions would disrupt this mental process. The kids talking. Getting lost in my thoughts. But soon I was doing the visual sweep of the corners without thinking about it. I started driving more slowly. Not intentionally. I just drove at a speed that allowed me to do the visual sweep and comfortably stop when I saw a pedestrian intending to cross. (Pro tip: this is all easier at 20 mph than 30 mph.)

The second habit is to stop for pedestrians you don’t see. In all my years of driving on 4-Lane Death Roads, I assumed that if the driver in the lane next to me slowed down approaching an intersection, it was because the driver was going to turn. This assumption kills pedestrians, like Erin Durham, who was struck in a crosswalk after taking her children to the school bus. One driver stopped for Erin, but the driver in the adjacent lane didn’t see her because she was crossing in front of the stopped car. Though the driver obviously violated the law, the driver will not face consequences, like most Minnesota drivers who kill pedestrians

I took these two pictures while walking home from the Lexington Green Line station yesterday. They tell a typical 4-Lane Death Road story (though this stretch of Lexington is 6-Lane divided road). The first photo shows a pedestrian in the median trying to cross southbound Lexington at Central Ave. The driver in the lane next to the median stopped for her, but drivers in adjacent lanes didn’t. In the second photo, taken a few seconds later, the stopped driver has given up and started driving. You can see the driver two cars back is cutting into the adjacent lane to avoid waiting. Had the pedestrian not wisely remained in the median, she might have been hit by the impatient driver.

The driver in the lane adjacent to the pedestrian stops. Drivers in the next two lanes don't.

Lex Ped 2

To develop a habit to stop for pedestrians I don’t see, I started intentionally thinking, if the driver next to me stops, I stop too. And I kept intentionally thinking it, until I didn’t have to think it at all. I just do it.

So, it’s not that complicated. 1) Do a visual sweep of corners as you approach an intersection looking for pedestrians. 2) When the driver next to you stops, you stop too. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. You have to work to teach yourself new habits.

Stopping for pedestrians only when we happen to see them is negligent driving that has resulted in 65 pedestrians hit and 3 killed this year so far in Saint Paul. We need to teach ourselves and each other to not be negligent drivers.

Emily Metcalfe

About Emily Metcalfe

Emily is a parent to 4 kids, which takes up most of her time. She lives in Saint Paul, where she serves on the Transportation Committee of the Planning Commission. She is a member of the Union Park District Council and co-chairs its Transportation Committee. She volunteers with Saint Paul Women on Bikes. Find her on Twitter @emilyemetcalfe.