The Dignity of Pedestrians

By: Michael Kessler

June 11, 2010

Law is supposed to protect the life, liberty, and property of citizens. That's part of its moral purpose--regulating conduct so that the dignity of citizens is not assaulted and harmed by others' inattention, wrecklessness, or aggression. Yet at a concrete and local level, we can see how the laws designed to protect pedestrians are terribly broken and point to the failure of the government to achieve a basic, moral goal of its existence.
The numbers in DC tell a chilling story. A Pedestrian Master Plan issued in 2009 found that on average about 670 DC area pedestrians are injured by vehicles. Fatalities in the mid-2000s were 2.7 per 100,000 residents, accounting for over 22% of all traffic fatalities.

Anecdotally, every week there seems to be a new report of a pedestrian struck by a driver. When this happens, the comments in the newspapers are usually divided between pedestrians focused on the dangerous conditions and drivers focused on the dangerous practices of pedestrians who jaywalk or cross against lights. Most commenters reduce the discussion to the entire fault of either all pedestrians or all drivers.

My own experience as a driver, biker, and very frequent pedestrian is clouded by the frustration I experience daily when trying to cross streets at legal crosswalks. For those not familiar with DC, many drivers in the region commute into the city from outlying suburbs. I feel for them--by the time they travel the arterial connectors occluded by construction and heavy volume, hop onto the Beltway (generally a parking lot), and finally make it onto the DC city streets, they're late for work or meetings. The otherwise quiet city streets thus end up being extensions of the freeway system, places to make up time, and the 25 mph signs and stop signs at every block are frequently disregarded.

I live in one of the neighborhoods where the streets are used as cross-city thoroughfares. Stop signs seem to be interpreted to mean "slow down unless body damage is going to occur." I walk with my dogs and every day encounter drivers who charge me down in the crosswalk while I try to cross the streets. I've seen moms with strollers, old ladies with walkers, children on bikes nearly run over in legal crosswalks with such astounding frequency that I consider it a miraculous day when I don't see a near-collision.

Mind you, I'm not talking about those walkers, runners, and bikers who disregard their own safety and the crosswalks and jump into traffic when it's not their turn or a safe, legal place to cross. I'm talking about residents trying to live their lives in relative safety, while using legal crosswalks at stop signs.

As a refresher on the law, allow me to point you to the relevant DC Code:

50-2201.28. (a) When official traffic-control signals are not in place or not in operation, the driver of a vehicle shall stop and give the right-of-way pedestrian crossing the roadway within any marked crosswalk or unmarked crosswalk at an intersection.

(b) A pedestrian who has begun crossing on the "WALK" signal shall be given the right-of-way by the driver of any vehicle to continue to the opposite sidewalk or safety island, whichever is nearest.

For those of you using Rock Creek Parkway, a route I frequently cross while running, the relevant National Park Service regulation also gives a presumptive right-of-way to pedestrians at crosswalks:

36CFR4.20 Right of way. An operator of a motor vehicle shall yield the right of way to pedestrians, saddle and pack animals and vehicles drawn by animals. Failure to yield the right of way is prohibited.

Nearly every time I've tried to cross at the Calvert/Connecticut ramp up from Rock Creek Parkway, where there is a (barely) painted crosswalk and large signs notifying cars of the crosswalk, only about 1 in 20 drivers will stop for pedestrians or bicyclists. The speed limit in this area is 25mph, and cars are regularly traveling well above 35 mph. There's no demographic steretype of the more frequent offenders: I've been nearly run over by drivers of every race, of every size and type of vehicle, with plates from nearly every state of the union (thus far I don't recall anyone from Hawaii!).

As a moral theorist, I could wax on about the negative effects of consumer society that lead to this disregard of the well-being of our fellow citizens--everyone is in a rush to get to spa treatments and business meetings, too consumed by blackberry texts to pay attention to the person crossing the path of their SUV. Perhaps shifting our focus to virtual realities makes us immune to the face staring at us from the curb. The "me" society is on grand display at our intersections. Hobbes' description of the state of nature comes to mind--crossing streets is to enter the lawless wilderness where life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Part of the problem is concrete: the literal degradation of crosswalks themselves. The paint in many of the crosswalks is severely peeled and they are poorly marked. Signs are not present, or if they are, they consist of a bicycle or pedestrian symbol--hardly a bold statement of the fact that drivers must legally stop for pedestrians.

My favorite example of DC's attempt to protect pedestrians--and their utter failure--has to be on Wisconsin Avenue in Burleith/Glover Park by the Holiday Inn. There are 4 lanes of heavy traffic, and two large pedestrian crosswalks bisecting Wisconsin Avenue. Supposedly these are to allow pedestrians to safely cross from the East side to 35th Street on the West. In reality, there is a long stretch of unregulated traffic flow on a steep hill, so drivers are not watching for pedestrians. To cross this walkway as a pedestrian is to attempt to play frogger with heavy, fast traffic. For a short time about a year ago, the city installed plastic pylons in the middle of the road with strong language to the effect that DC law requires motorists to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. Within a few weeks, the pylons were completely mangled by traffic. They were removed and not replaced. So much for protecting pedestrians.

The reality, too, is that enforcement of these laws is nearly non-existent. I've seen police sitting at corners while drivers aggressively barrel down on pedestrians and they do nothing. Just two Fridays ago, a Park Police officer turning right onto 23rd Street from P street drove into the crosswalk and stopped about an inch from my knee as I was walking in the crosswalk on the signal. The cell phone at his ear did not help my frustration at the supposed enforcer coming so close to colliding with me.

One of my favorite exceptions to my experiences was when I saw a driver barrel down on a DC police officer crossing the street at 26th and P. The fact of his huge frame, uniform, and gun did not stop the driver who aggressively advanced. I applauded as the officer motioned that driver over and read him a riot act, while ticketing him for various infractions. If only that happened more often.

I'm not merely complaining about my own frustrations. The statistics show this is a serious problem and will only grow as the city becomes more pedestrian attractive (or, as the economic downturn continues to have ripple effects, more people take to walking and biking). DCs master plan certainly lays out worthy objectives with grand visions for education, high priority corridors, and enforcement. Some day they may get around to implementing this. For now, I wish they'd use the "broken windows" approach to traffic laws and sit police at every intersection. Perhaps a few days of enforcement might even produce enough tickets to partially solve the DC budget crisis.

The bigger picture is that dangers to pedestrians have continued to grow--a basic consequence of traffic patterns and urban density. In the absence of self-motivated benevolence on the part of motorists--which appears to not be the overall trend--we need the state to create the conditions of traffic and pedestrian safety through sensible regulations and well-designed infrastructure. Then we need aggressive enforcement. The DC government is charged with regulating these traffic patterns to protect pedestrians while creating efficient traffic flow.

From my perspective as a driver and pedestrian, they fail at both objectives. This means the law fails to achieve its moral purpose of protecting the life, liberty, and property of DC citizens (and the many visitors from around the world). The government leaders can do better by prioritizing this problem, and we should hold them accountable in how well they protect our well-being while walking.

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The Dignity of Pedestrians