The Phantom Pedestrian Menace

In case you missed it, here’s the blog post by TWU 100 spokesperson Pete Donohue that set off a local Twitterstorm yesterday, in its entirety:

Pedestrian Menace


JANUARY 11 — Pedestrians are a menace — to themselves. Not all the time, but more often than you might think. “Dangerous pedestrian choices,” including crossing the street against the signal, are the primary cause in 31% of the city’s pedestrian fatalities, according to a two-year study. Pedestrian actions are a contributing cause in another 16% of pedestrian fatalities, according to the city Department of Transportation study.

In other words, pedestrians have at least some culpability in nearly half — 47% — of the traffic accidents in the city that result in a pedestrian being killed.

Pedestrian behavior is most problematic in Manhattan where sidewalks and streets are more crowded. It’s the primary cause in 43% of pedestrian fatalities in the borough and a contributing cause in another 16% — more than half of the accidents, 56%. Those statistics, which were tucked inside the Vision Zero Pedestrian Safety Action Plan that Mayor de Blasio’s administration released last year, are striking. Yet, you never hear about them. Some safety crusaders only want to talk about the city not redesigning streets fast enough and cops not cracking down hard enough on drivers. In their eyes, anyone with a set of car keys is a Mad Max maniac.

The DOT gives pedestrian safety talks in public schools and senior centers, according to its website. But I’ve never heard a city official speaking harshly or at length about pedestrians carelessly and recklessly putting themselves in harms’ way. The role of pedestrians certainly hasn’t been given equal weight to other aspects of the problem. If anything, the city report at times manipulates figures to keep the focus on drivers.

State Sen. Jose Peralta (D-Queens) and Assemblyman Michael DenDekker (D-Queens) dared raised the issue of “distracted walking” during a December press conference two days after a 17-year-old boy was killed crossing Northern Blvd. by a hit-and-run driver. Peralta said the city should create a public awareness campaign about the perils of texting while walking, along the lines of those targeting drivers. Seems reasonable enough. DenDekker talked about his proposal to issue $25 fines to pedestrians who text in crosswalks. They were overwhelmingly ignored by the media and vilified by one zealous advocacy group’s blog. Peralta and DenDekker “mostly blamed the victims of dangerous driving,” the blog stated.

It’s nonsense, of course. It’s a fact that people are constantly darting or sauntering through intersections against the signal, crossing midblock far from the relative safety of a crosswalk, texting with their heads down. We all do it. Only tourists from the Midwest, or from countries with a more obedient populace, seem to wait patiently on the curb. The city’s statistics quantify the dangerousness of our impatience and inattention. It would be reckless to ignore them.

After I saw the post, the main question I had was “Why?” Why is it so important to the transit union to assign fault to people who get struck by drivers? To blame the same people who are walking to catch the train or the bus.

Sure, the union wants to exempt bus drivers from the Right of Way Law, but that law doesn’t protect people crossing “against the signal, crossing midblock far from the relative safety of the crosswalk.” It only applies to drivers who harm people following all the rules. The post doesn’t defend a particular position of the union, it just inflames people who don’t believe in blaming pedestrians when they are injured or killed in traffic.

The post only makes sense as pure provocation — reviving the Right of Way Law animosities by stirring things up between street safety advocates and the union. Well played, and sure, I’ll bite.

Donohue asked via Twitter today why Streetsblog “ignores” stats in the city’s Vision Zero report that indicate “pedestrian error” contributes to a significant share of serious crashes in NYC. (For the record, here’s our post from the day that report was released.)

There’s a simple reason Streetsblog doesn’t spend time harping on pedestrian behavior — it wouldn’t help anyone. America already has a vast educational apparatus devoted to inculcating fear of dangerous traffic at a very young age. There are little rhyming catchphrases, mountains of pamphlets and flyers, and grade-school curricula that impart the rules of the road for pedestrians.

In fact we’ve probably taken this too far. The received wisdom among most American law enforcement agencies still seems to be that most people who get injured or killed while walking had it coming, and the best thing to do about the problem is hand out some jaywalking tickets.

Where has that gotten us? If the U.S. had the same per capita traffic death rate as the United Kingdom, tens of thousands of people wouldn’t die each year. New York City is safer than most of America because we’re less dependent on cars, but our safety record still pales next to cities like London, Tokyo, and Berlin, with traffic death rates less than half the rate in NYC.

What do safer cities do differently than us? I’ve never come across any evidence that they’re saving lives by walloping New York on pedestrian education.

What they do have are street designs that slow down traffic to non-lethal speeds, robust automated speed enforcement, and stronger traffic laws that protect people walking and biking. In some parts of the world, it’s culturally accepted that when you get behind the wheel of a multi-ton machine, you should pay attention and travel at speeds where you can react to the sometimes unpredictable movements of people on foot and avoid killing anyone.

That stuff works, blaming victims doesn’t.

  • Eric McClure

    Pete Donohue and the TWU clearly have no clue as to what Vision Zero is all about.

  • Bahij

    Why did the TWU select this inflammatory jerk to represent it? Transit advocates and the union have so many positive things we could collaborate on, this low-life is ruining that

  • Nora

    I got hit by a car while crossing in the crosswalk with the right of way. I later looked at NYPD’s compiled crash stats, and it appeared that they marked the cause of my crash as a “pedestrian error,” which I can assure you it was not. Granted, Mr. Donohue’s article involves a study undertaken by DOT, not NYPD, but I remain a little skeptical of the statistics cited. If the people analyzing crash data won’t listen to pedestrians who are hit in the crosswalk through no fault of their own, then I’m sure they don’t hesitate to blame victims who can no longer speak for themselves.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Why is it so important to the transit union to assign fault to people who get struck by drivers? To blame the same people who are walking to catch the train or the bus.”

    Who does the PBA blame for those who are victims of crime, or are injured by the police? Who does the UFT blame for children that don’t learn?

    The heads of private companies may also think this way, but they don’t dare to say it. Because they either face the loss of customers, as they can’t force people to pay up and shut up, or regulatory actions by the politicians they don’t own. Or lawsuits that actually affect them if they lose, instead of having the general public pay up instead.

    “Why did the TWU select this inflammatory jerk to represent it?”

    Public unions represent the most selfish aspects of their most selfish members (or retirees) on their worst days — the lowest common denominator. This isn’t 1930 in the labor movement.

  • AlexWithAK

    It’s also worth pointing out that drivers are generally in MUCH better shape to provide an account of what happened after a crash.

    Driver (who is completely unscathed): Officer, they jumped in front of me! I had the light and they just walked blindly into the street! I bet they were looking at their phone!

    Pedestrian (while being treated for injuries by EMS): Um, well I…I’m sorry officer, I…ummm…”

    Officer logs incident as “pedestrian error”. And there you have it.

  • AlexWithAK

    Still confused about what they’re trying to gain from this. On top of being utter nonsense, it’s from way out of left field.

  • Nora

    That’s an excellent point. In my case, the police believed the driver that I was on the phone despite the fact that I told them I wasn’t, and my phone was in my pocket and the impact of the crash and my weight crushed it. Sigh.

  • Kevin Love

    What makes this victim-blaming particularly disturbing is that many of the victims are the most innocent and vulnerable members of society. Are you going to blame children for being immature? Alas, many victim-blamers do. Being a child and engaging in normal child behavior in the street should not be a crime that merits capital punishment.

    And not just children. Many adults have development disabilities. Many elderly people are just a bit confused. And many people, definitely including myself, make mistakes. Should death be the punishment visited upon us for being imperfect human beings?

    Instead of blaming the victim, other countries have no problem placing the blame squarely where it belongs. For an example, see:

  • Kevin Love

    “If the U.S. had the same per capita traffic death rate as the United Kingdom, tens of thousands of people wouldn’t die each year. ”

    Why the UK as a standard of comparison? Instead of the #2 safest country for traffic violence, why not benchmark #1: The Netherlands?


    If the USA’s safety record had improved as much as The Netherlands since 1975, then there would be 22,000 fewer Americans crushed to death every year by motor vehicle operators. And that was in 2009! See:

  • Max Power

    Well, if pedestrians are at fault so frequently, the the TWU should have no issue with the Right of Way law.

  • ahwr

    2007 data. Not true anymore.

    In 2012:

    Per capita UK, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Israel, and Ireland had a lower death rate than the Netherlands.

    Per motor vehicle kilometer Iceland, Norway, Ireland, Denmark, UK, Sweden, and Finland had a lower death rate than the Netherlands.

    Per registered motor vehicle Iceland, Norway, UK, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Switzerland, Japan, Ireland had a lower death rate than the Netherlands.

    Pick your metric.

  • Kevin Love

    Very interesting. I will have to take a look at this 526 page document. Thank you for the link.

  • com63

    The city should require dash cams for all vehicles the city operates or controls (MTA, TLC tec.) and provide incentives to other large fleet operators to do the same. If accidents were captured on video, more people would get justice. I’m surprised insurance companies are not encouraging this more. Use a dashcam, get a discount.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    pat Lynch was unavailable

  • BBnet3000

    Even if you were in your phone, that’s perfectly legal and has no bearing on the right of way. Quite a typical refrain in anti-pedestrian complaints though.

  • AlexWithAK

    Also typical of how the cops handle these situations. They straight up believe the driver’s version of events above the pedestrian or cyclist’s.

  • AlexWithAK

    Some insurers do offer optional monitoring programs for their general customer base. You plug a little transponder into your car’s computer and it relays data to the insurance company. Presuming you’re a reasonably safe driver based on the data, they give you a discount. Combine that with the camera idea and you’d save a ton of money over time because 1. your rates would go down and 2. drivers would stop breaking traffic laws, thus reducing crashes.

  • camp6ell

    I think it may also have been chosen because nobody runs around touting the UK has a model country WRT to street safety… it’s just an ordinary country like the US, that doesn’t appear to try too hard… yet their rates are still waaaay lower. That was my takeaway, anyway.

  • Jim

    “Crossing midblock FAR from the relative safety of the crosswalk” Perhaps there needs to be more midblock crosswalks then, shorter blocks… better designed streets. And relative safety? how relative? Aren’t more pedestrians hit in crosswalks then not?

  • Andrew

    It’s a lot easier for pedestrians to watch for potential vehicular conflicts midblock than at crosswalks, because there’s no turning traffic to contend with.

    It’s also easier for motorists to watch for approaching pedestrians when they’re going straight than when they’re turning.

    What’s this supposed relative safety of the crosswalk?

  • John

    NYPD was most likely thinking that you stepped out of your home this morning, therefore it’s your fault. NYPD would have said that you should have stayed inside like an indoor cat.

  • neroden

    TWU Local 100 needs to be ignored and sidelined. They’ve been nothing but trouble. Frankly they’re an embarassment to the national TWU and to their own membership. I really wish the transit workers would refuse to join this corrupt organization and would form a real union.

  • neroden

    They’re crooks. John Samuelsen and Pete Donahue are just plain crooks. They want their crook buddies to get paid for running over pedestrians (bus drivers), falsifying reports (maintenance workers), and sitting in a cab (conductors) or kiosk (station agents) doing nothing and avoiding the public.

    There are lots of great public sector unions, including lots of great TWU locals across the country. Local 100 isn’t one of them and should really be expelled from the TWU for its antics. I have never seen this kind of crap from the TWU locals in Seattle, San Diego, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, etc. etc. etc.

  • neroden

    It would be good to nail the crooks at the NYPD. You have a libel case against them!

  • neroden

    John Samuelsen is an evil, evil man who belongs in prison. He selected another evil man who belongs in prison to represent him.

    If you’d like to ask why the TWU Local 100 elected Samuelsen, that’s a very good question.

    TWU Local 100, by the way, is NOT the whole TWU, although they’d like you to believe that they are. Most of the TWU is a perfectly respectable union. Local 100 is a sick criminal organization.


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