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.

47 thoughts on “Not Seeing Pedestrians is Not an Excuse

  1. Monte Castleman

    One note on terminology. “4-Lane Death Road” road has no medians for pedestrians to stop in, and no left turn lanes for motorists to get them safely out of the way of through traffic. Lexington Parkway has both. It’s better termed as a multi-lane divided road (or “stroad” if you don’t like them.).

  2. Keith Morris

    A common theme in the victim blaming comments on incidents like these in local media is how those people frame the scenario: pedestrians “running” or “jumping” out in the middle of the street leaving motorists no time to slow down. I noticed that they never mention where these pedestrians were in the picture beforehand because it would nullify the very point they’re trying to make. These pedestrians aren’t just appearing out of nowhere in front of speeding motorists, in each and every case they are entering the street from the curb.

    Motorists need to pay attention to what is going on behind the curbs along the street around and ahead of them at all times. That means watching the sidewalks just as you do the street. The Stop for Me campaign would be much more effective if it pushed this angle.

    1. Rosa

      Slowing down is such an important part of this. If drivers REALLY thought pedestrians were likely to just run out into the street, they would drive a hell of a lot slower, habitually.

      You can see it when kids are playing near a street, or waiting on a curb to cross – because they actually think a kid is likely to run out or chase a ball, drivers often slow down or swerve away.

  3. Bryce R

    Great post. I had never realized the (now) obvious double standard that we train pedestrians to watch for motorists and not the other way around. If only there were a months long class where there was ample time to teach beginning drivers of the habits that would make them kill fewer people (hint: there is, but it’s more concerned with “rule following” than not killing people).

  4. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    This makes a compelling reason for why we need to retest drivers every few years. The state keeps changing driving laws and regulations. People are left to figure out how to make it work. We are really bad at making driving safe ourselves.

    1. Emily MetcalfeEmily Metcalfe Post author

      I agree. Laws change, and we don’t require drivers to keep up with changes in the law to stay licensed. We have to renew our licenses every 4 years anyway. We might as well verify that drivers at least know the current law.

  5. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    Question: was the pedestrian crosswalk law actually passed in 1995? At least as far back as 1973 the law stated drivers must yield to pedestrians crossing in a crosswalk (which is later defined as marked or unmarked)

    There was also a good discussion on twitter dot com a few weeks back about how the statute actually reads for when drivers must yield. It states “..the driver of a vehicle shall stop to yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway..” with “roadway” being defined by 169.011 as “portion of a highway improved, designed, or ordinarily used for vehicular travel, exclusive of the sidewalk or shoulder.” So basically, if you’re in the shoulder or on the sidewalk and have yet to enter the roadway, you don’t have the right of way.

    This runs counter to what I’d interpret as the intent of the statute granting right of way. Other states have been more intentional about defining this, such as Oregon: But in our case, the letter of the law doesn’t require a driver to stop. Which is terrible for people in wheelchairs or with strollers (or even just holding their kid) or people with disabilities for whom stepping out boldly into the roadway is not reasonable. And, I’ve had plenty of drivers ignore me while standing 3-4′ into the asphalt anyway.

    It would be better if the whole system of speed limits, pedestrian safety/rights, and road design were simplified. Matt Steele’s article points out a tension in statute. Drivers should use due care and restrict speed to avoid collision with cars/people/bikes, yet the ped statute says pedestrians must not suddenly enter the roadway if drivers don’t have enough time to stop. Which takes priority? What if the latter statute took priority and followed up with language around roads designed to accommodate this behavior?

    At the very least, the ped right of way statute needs to be re-written.

    1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

      “At the very least, the ped right of way statute needs to be re-written.”

      It will be interesting to see this happen and have it not be “the war on cars”.

    2. Rosa

      I’ve seen a lot of arguments about this.

      Interestingly, the folks who think pedestrians have no right of way until they are actually in the street ALSO think it’s terrible for people to just boldly step out into the street because it’s erratic and surprising and will get them killed.

      I kind of think, since drivers so rarely get charged, it doesn’t matter. Isn’t there a moral responsibility for drivers to not run people over with their cars, regardless?

      1. Rosa

        people I know who live in other states get tickets for things like “stopping in the crosswalk” and “not stopping before the stop sign”. I had never heard of that actually happening but in the last year or so it’s happened to friends in Colorado and New York. Can you imagine if we ticketed for not yielding to pedestrians or turning left across a crosswalk while a pedestrian is coming toward your lane? People would be insanely angry (both of my friends were pissed about their tickets) but those two are behaviors that have recently killed people locally so it ought to be pretty damn defensible.

  6. Matt SteeleMatthew Steele

    It’s striking to me how much the victim-blaming I see in comments and public discourse around pedestrian deaths have parallels to the language that perpetuates rape culture. I’ll be the first to admit that, as a man, maybe I’m seeing this parallel where it doesn’t exist – and obviously there are differences between the two. Yet to me it seems like both categories of crimes destroy lives, cause fear, and draw out this type of victim-blaming rhetoric. Thoughts?

    1. Justin Doescher

      Plus 1, I absolutely agree. Of course, if someone does run in front of a speeding vehicle and that person truly cannot stop, it’s one thing, but people act like anyone who gets hit by a car is basically at fault.

    2. Julie Barton

      As a woman, I see the same parallels regarding victim blaming. Thank you for recognizing it too!

  7. Justin Doescher

    I work on North Washington and I cross at 8th street every single day to get lunch. There’s a painted crosswalk but no light or stop sign or anything else. Some people stop to let people cross, but they’re definitely in the minority, and it is a real challenge to get across safely with cars stopped in both directions.

    I’ve seen people almost get rear ended when they do stop, I’ve had drivers swerve to go around cars who have stopped to let me cross, I get people making rude gestures, yelling at me, all kinds of crazy stuff. And this is a busy area with no lights for 3 blocks so people get going pretty fast and there are lots of pedestrians. There seems to be an expectation that you’ll run to get across, which I don’t do. They put in bollards in the parking lane (?) which don’t seem to have any effect.

    It’s just crazy to me. Like the author, when I was a kid, a teen driver, and even a younger driver in college and in my 20s, I remember everyone talking about how you had to stop for pedestrians. I also seem to remember it being enforced. But cops don’t even stop for pedestrians here. It’s crazy.

    1. Joe Schmoe

      This is pretty much my daily experience walking to and from work on the other end of downtown too. When I tell others about it they either think I’m making it up or that I have the worst luck in the world to have such bad encounters. They obviously don’t walk much.

    2. Russell Booth

      Someone above said this is like rape culture. It’s also like gun culture. Why would you expect someone to assert their rights when you have a deadly weapon pointed at them? Crazy, eh?

  8. Josh Metcalfe

    I would add a 3rd driving habit:

    3) When you stop for a pedestrian, give lots of space between you and them. This helps both the pedestrian see and be mindful of the other lane of traffic and it gives other drivers better visibility to see the pedestrian.

    If it appears there may be an accident about to happen, I’ll hit my horn to alert the pedestrian and the driver to pay attention and if I’m in the right hand lane, I may put out my arm and make my hand into a stop shape to alert the driver in the next lane.

    1. Emily MetcalfeEmily Metcalfe Post author

      Yesterday a school bus driver stopped for me crossing Lexington. She honked at every driver in the adjacent lane who didn’t stop. After several loud honks from a stopped school bus, someone finally stopped.

    2. Rosa

      it also signals very clearly that you are going to stop, which is faster for everyone – if I wait to go until you have already come to a full stop, because you speeded up right to the last second and I thought you might run me down, then you have to wait while I go from a full stop to moving.

  9. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    This all starts with slowing the design speeds of our urban roads. You can’t pay attention if you’re driving over 30 miles per hour. It’s simply not possible, given the way that our visual field of perception contracts with higher speeds. Yet almost all (all?) of our urban arterial roads are designed for speeds greater than 30 miles per hour. Even if the speed limit says one thing, the wide lanes and wide turning radii say quite another.

    It’s like putting a giant bowl of candy in a room full of kindergardeners, telling them not to eat it, and leaving the room. What do you think will happen?

    1. Dana DeMasterDanaD

      Unrelated, but your bowl of candy comment made me think of the Marshmallow Test. It’s a standard psychological research test on children. The child is placed in a room with a single marshmallow and told if the don’t eat it for 10-15 minutes they will get another marshmallow. The researcher gives the child a bell and tells them they can ring the bell, the researcher will return and they can eat the marshmallow. If they wait, they get more. The videos are hilarious! Kids licking the marshmallow, touching it, etc. Being able to wait is highly correlated with executive functioning skills in adulthood. Kids that don’t eat the marshmallow are more likely to have the ability to delay gratification and plan ahead in their 20s. Both my kids did it at the U of M. D was great – laying under the table, banging her fists on the floor.

      1. Joe

        Actually with further study researchers have drawn very different conclusions about the study. Being able to wait had less to do with any innate ability of the children and more with the reliability of the environment the children were reared in. Kids from chaotic family situations have no reason to trust that waiting for a second marshmallow vs. just eating the one they have now is a worthy trade-off. Hence the study is merely rephrasing what we already know: kids from chaotic, unreliable backgrounds have a more difficult time later in life.

    2. Rosa

      the thing is, it happens on streets that were clearly not designed for high speed. Yesterday I saw a driver on East Lake honk and swerve around another car that dared to slow down a little before turning left.

  10. Al Davison

    I think too many drivers are way too comfortable operating at high speeds within suburban and urban areas to the point their perception gets distorted and reaction times are slow. The only thing they tend to see are other drivers. Everything else is a foreign object to them, which many treat with a sense of hostility. An example could be a driver accelerating when they see a pedestrian trying to cross the roadway.

    I see it all the time in Saint Paul. Drivers get perplexed and annoyed when people stop at an intersection despite to let pedestrians cross. Just awhile back I stopped for a woman on Rice St, yet the much of the opposite traffic sped on through despite her being in the roadway at the time. I think its both ignorance on drivers still not being fully aware of pedestrian ROW laws and impatience.

    I also really hate right turns on red both as a driver and as a pedestrian. You may get honked at for being patient and cautious as a driver turning, and as a pedestrian you really can’t tell if the turning driver will actually grant you the right of way.

    1. Will

      This. You learn to look left for cars. But most people fail to look right or even straight ahead.

  11. Eric SaathoffEric S

    When I took driver’s ed we had a train engineer come in to tell us gruesome stories of hitting cars with people in them. Still scares me to this day when I go over train tracks.

    We had no gruesome stories of cars hitting pedestrians

    1. Emily MetcalfeEmily Metcalfe Post author

      Mostly what I remember from driver’s Ed was being taught ways to avoid getting hit by other drivers (“defensive driving”) I remember my mom’s mantra was, you never know what other drivers are going to do.

      I was not taught from the perspective that I needed to avoid hitting others (in cars or not). I think it was a given that we weren’t supposed to hit others, so it wasn’t a focus? I don’t remember pedestrian safety being addressed at all.


    That is how I got hit in March I had the right of way & she just turned then she said “The sun was in my eyes“ THEN GET SOME SUNGLASSES LADY 3 months later I still am purple on my leg but the bump is gone

  13. GlowBoy

    The other day the Strib published a letter to the editor claiming that most pedestrians walk on the right, instead of left, side of the road (an incorrect belief IMO, probably due to observational biases), and effectively concluding that pedestrians have mostly been responsible for their own deaths. Typical victim-blaming.

    Although I think part of the problem is our infrastructure which makes pedestrians third-class citizens and more or less forces them into dangerous and/or unlawful situations if they want to get where they’re going expediently, the primary focus here in Minnesota needs to be on enforcement, awareness and education.

    As a recent transplant, I find the behavior of Minnesota drivers to be nothing less than shocking. Most drivers won’t stop for a pedestrian in a marked crosswalk, let alone an implied one. Doesn’t matter if you’re wearing bright orange and walking with kids, trying to cross a street with only one lane in each direction. NO ONE will stop for you if you stand there waiting on the curb.

    We can blame infrastructure, but Portland has similar lousy infrastructure, and drivers stop much more often, even at implied crosswalks. A cultural change needs to happen, and the police need to start ticketing enough drivers – and keep it up – that people start talking about it at the water cooler, and realize they need to start looking and stopping. Occasional high-profile enforcement events aren’t enough: cops on the street need to be watching for, and ticketing failure-to-yield violations every day, as they’re going about their daily business.

    Urban police often say they’re too busy focused on solving major crimes to bother with traffic enforcement. But now that we’ve reached the point where cars are killing more people in our cities than guns are, it’s time for the police to adjust their priorities.

    1. GlowBoy

      One more thing about Minnesota drivers and crosswalks: multiple times on a daily basis, I see someone stopped at a red light partially or fully blocking the perpendicular crosswalk (even when there’s a white stop line painted in front of it!)

      Can someone explain to me what this is about? This simply does not happen in Oregon. There’s absolutely no advantage to stopping so far forward. The light is red. Why is it so hard to stop before the line?

      And even if they see me coming, being forced out of my path or even out into traffic to dodge their front bumper, most drivers won’t apologize or back up out of the way. Despite my tone here, I’m not usually militant about this: often I say or do nothing except continue on my way, other times I only try to make eye contact or give a little hand motion requesting that they move back, but still most drivers won’t move.

      Interestingly, if I’m on a bike people are more likely to back out of the way, or even apologize if their window is open. But if I’m on foot, nothing.

      It’s not necessarily dangerous, but it adds insult to (literal) injury, and this callousness drills home the message about the status of pedestrians in the view of most drivers.

      1. Rosa

        when i was walking with little kids all the time, I would glare until they backed up.

        And it’s totally habitual – drivers do it even when they’re stopped waiting for a green turn arrow or in a middle lane of a 3-lane going their way – times when being forward of the line doesn’t gain them anything.

        I really think the answer is that there’s no enforcement. I know enforcement isn’t popular around here but if in other states people stop before the crosswalk and here they don’t, the answer has to be some combination of social pressure and legal enforcement.

        1. GlowBoy

          “if in other states people stop before the crosswalk and here they don’t”

          I can’t speak for the entire country, but I’ve been to or lived in several states (OR, WA, CA, some northeastern states IIRC) where a significant proportion of drivers stop. Not coincidentally, these are also states where the police are known to enforce the crosswalk laws.

          I don’t mean to say that every Oregon driver stops for pedestrians. A pretty large share do not, especially in suburban and rural areas. And on multilane roads you’re not that likely to get drivers to stop for you. But since on single lane (each way) roads you only need ONE car in each direction to stop, it ends up working out that you rarely find yourself standing at the edge of the street watching traffic roar by. If the first car doesn’t stop, the third one probably will.

          In Seattle, I actually saw a cop pull over a driver who failed to stop for me, while I was waiting to cross at an implied crosswalk. As a compliant pedestrian recently transplanted from the Midwest and un-consciously accepting of my subservience to the almighty automobile, this experience blew my mind. And permanently rearranged my perspective.

          1. robsk

            I was blown away how drivers in the Ocean Beach neighborhood of San Diego stopped mid-street for pedestrians. Of course this encourages jay walkers, but sometimes crossing in the middle street is practical. Maybe it was the neighborhood, but it was explained to me that the consequences for hitting a pedestrian there were severe.

            Only time cars seem to stop mid-street in the MSP Metro is if they want a potentially soon to be vacated parking space.

      2. Rosa

        and it IS dangerous. If people were habitually stopping before the crosswalk, it wouldn’t matter if they happened to be paying enough attention to see what’s in the crosswalk when they stop before a stop sign. They would just be stopping where they weren’t likely to hit someone no matter what.

      3. Julie Barton

        maybe the police in Oregon actually enforce the law of stopping before the cross walk? I actually had a driver the other day go around me when I was stopped before the cross walk (one with the additional white line a bit further back from the actual cross walk). So, around me he went, right in front of me to stop at the red light: not only was he blocking the entire cross walk, but he was also partially blocking the cross traffic’s lane. Then a cop pulled up next to me (well, into the cross walk, actually), looked at the other car, shook his head and did nothing.

        When I cycle, and cars are blocking my right of way (typically where a trail crosses a street), I tend to stop and look at them until they back up: this is especially true when they are blocking the cutout at the curb.

    2. Eric SaathoffEric S

      I’ll show pictures in an article soon, but I recently observed drivers not stopping for pedestrians wanting to cross at Greenbrier and Maryland. The only car who stopped was a police officer. I wondered – will he/she pursue one of the law breakers? No, the police officer was too busy following the law and making the crosswalk safe for the pedestrian in the moment.

  14. Melanie Peterson

    Thanks for the thoughtful article and advice. During the last 20 years, my daughter, husband and I have all been hit by turning cars while we had the right of way on our bikes (two cars turning right on red and one car turning right into a parking ramp, all in St. Paul/Minneapolis). We are all incredibly defensive bikers, trying to anticipate when a car might hit us, but we still got hit. Please, drivers, watch for us!

  15. Stu

    I echo the fact that people really do need change their behavior to actually look for peds and cyclists. Its not hard; it just takes a moment and it could save someone’s life.

    When I moved to STP in 2003 I came from an area with a near complete lack of both cyclists and peds. I had to affirmatively change my behavior to actively look for them.

    They seemed to be coming out of nowhere. Basically running into the street right at me!. Of course, they were just coming from the normal places that peds and cyclists come from. But when you don’t look for them they seem to be running at you. It’s not your fault! Except that it is.

    In my experience crossing Grand Ave in STP at any intersection not at a light can be a long wait. I once stopped for a family attempting to cross near Grotto that was actually IN roadway, so there was no debate about my duty to stop, and I must have waited 2 min for opposing traffic to stop. Who knows how long they were waiting before that.

  16. John Kabacinski

    I hate when people stop in the crosswalk area yesterday I had a lady see me slow down for her to stop pulls the whole car in the crosswalk I’m like SERIOUSLY? when here in Livonia MI the police will “hide” on the sidewalk. I’m like they better not enforce any parking on the sidewalk laws because the case will definitely be dropped

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