Federal ‘Pedestrian Safety Month’ Campaign Is An Offensive Parade of Dangerous Traffic Violence Myths

The real danger on our streets. Image: WNBC
The real danger on our streets. Image: WNBC

The first-ever federally funded “National Pedestrian Safety Month” kicks off tomorrow, and — surprise! — it’s centered around a press campaign aimed at convincing Americans of the debunked myth that the key to ending traffic violence is personal responsibility, mostly for walkers themselves.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released its plans for the month-long public awareness effort yesterday, which includes a cache of social media graphics rife with some of the most toxic myths and misperceptions about how to keep walkers safe — and zero mention of real policy and infrastructure reforms that could actually saves lives.

Here are just a few of the low-lights.

Pedestrians have to do it themselves

NHTSA Flashlight

This Instagram graphic trots out one of the most stubborn myths in the book: that walkers can save their own lives if they just turn themselves into human disco balls after dark.

Rather than a graphic announcing that the agency is funding streetlight improvements to make pedestrians visible without hi-viz vests, mandating better headlights on cars, or even simply acknowledging that people wearing light-colored clothing get killed by drivers, too, NHTSA chooses to focus on the personal responsibility of walkers — and ignore the responsibilities of every other contributor to fatal crashes.

The myth of the distracted pedestrian

Distracted Walker

Here’s another oldie-but-goodie: the myth of the distracted pedestrian, rampaging through American streets, somehow endangering everyone around her with her…cell phone.

But here’s the problem: only about 2 percent of pedestrian crashes involve the use of a mobile phone by the walker, and it’s a safe bet that none of them injured anyone but the walker herself, since a human body doesn’t tend to do much damage to a motor vehicle, much less the driver inside it. Distracted driving, meanwhile, was considered a factor in the deaths of at least 2,841 people in 2018 according to the Administration’s own data, or about 7.7 percent of all fatalities. And that may even be an undercount, since many states don’t even include a field for law enforcement officers to report driver distraction on crash reports.

There is no graphic about the dangers of distracted driving in the Administration’s toolkit.

Drunk DRIVING is the issue, not drunk walking

Inebriated Walkers

This graphic needs a little demystifying: yes, alcohol is a factor in many pedestrian deaths, and a lot of the time — roughly a third — walkers themselves are drunk when they’re struck by car drivers. But here’s the thing: walking while drunk, in and of itself, is not a crime, nor is it inherently dangerous to other road users. And in some cases — say, when you can’t afford a taxi, and your city has insufficient public transit — it’s a responsible way to get home from the bar, at least compared to climbing behind the wheel after you’ve had a few beers.

Driving while drunk, of course, is illegal, and for good reason — and despite decades of public awareness campaigns and millions of dollars in advocacy efforts, 16 percent of drivers who killed walkers last year were drunk, according to NHTSA’s press materials.

Operating an easily weaponizable motor vehicle is indisputably an activity that demands a maximum amount of mental and physical acuity, and staying sober is the absolute least a driver can do. Using a sidewalk, on the other hand, shouldn’trequire that level of acumen, because differently abled people, children, the elderly, and — yes — addicts all have a fundamental human right to public space that they don’t have to the space behind a wheel. A sidewalk that does requires that walkers maintain total self awareness and lightning-fast response times should be redesigned — period.

Conflating the non-crime of drunk walking and the massive public health threat of drunk driving is a dangerous and manipulative way to blame pedestrians for their own death — not to mention adding dangerous stigma to addiction in a society that already fails to support recovery from the disease of alcoholism.

Let’s blame old people, too!

Older Pedestrians
Okay, this one’s just confusing. Yes, friends, it’s true: older people are more likely to be killed by cars! But is NHTSA’s graphic announcing that cities must lengthen crosswalk signal timing to give elderly people with physical disabilities more time?

Or enhance zoning codes so older Americans, 14 percent of whom live in poverty, can afford to live in comprehensively walkable areas?

Or give the elderly better transit options when walking is no longer a great option for them?

Nope! None of that. The Administration’s just letting you know that a lot of dead walkers are seniors…and maybe implying, offensively, they shouldn’t walk outside their homes at all if they have the misfortune to live in an area whose streets weren’t designed with their needs in mind.

Let’s make kids responsible for looking out for drivers!

Walk to School
Here’s another baffling insinuation: that surviving the walk to your local elementary school starts with…uh, someone around here, surely!

Let’s be clear: a safe route to school starts — and ends — with drivers not running over children. (And, in the case of non-white children, especially, police officers not murdering children.) Engineers can make that a whole lot easier by designing roads that compel drivers to slow down and reduce their chances of committing vehicular manslaughter, even when a little kid gets excited and jogs into the intersection a moment too soon.

But if the difference between life and death of a preschooler is the judgment of the preschooler, rather than the choices of the adults behind the wheel and behind the road design, we’ve got a problem on our hands that a public awareness alone campaign can’t solve.

Press Release

The Administration also assembled a handy packet of press releases that you can customize to put all manner of bogus traffic violence facts into the mouths of your local officials or non-profit leaders of choice. Those are already getting pretty well dragged on Twitter, but here’s a quick fix on this one to inspire you to join the fray:

Fixed Press Release

Meanwhile, a coalition of transportation safety, public health and consumer advocacy groups co-authored an open letter yesterday urging Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to push for laws aimed at decreasing the pedestrian death toll on America’s roadways, which reached a 30-year high of 6,590 last year.

The letter is pragmatic rather than visionary by design. All five of the coalition’s recommendations concern vehicle design, rather than more politically challenging reforms to infrastructure and traffic laws, and all of them have alreadyapproved by Congress in July as a part of the Democratic transportation mega-bill the Moving Forward Act. The larger bill languished in the Senate because of its aggressive stance on ending transportation-related climate change emissions, but nothing is stopping the DOT from implementing the aspects of the proposed legislation related to saving walkers’ lives — and advocates think Chao has a moral obligation to do so.

“There is a groundswell of support for these measures in Congress,” said Catherine Chase, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, and the lead signatory on the letter. “These types of technologies have already been proven to work, but the problem is, they’re not standard equipment. They’re typically only features in luxury cars that get bundled together with other bells and whistles like heated seats and heated steering wheels. We don’t think that safety should just be a luxury for people who have a lot of money.”

The coalition wants the US DOT to:

  • Require the installation of pedestrian detection systems, automatic emergency braking, and other automated driver assistance technology on all new cars;
  • Require the installation of systems that onboard alcohol sensors or other technologies that detect erratic driving behavior from drunk motorists on all new cars;
  • Require automakers to redesign hoods and bumpers to make cars more forgiving in crashes involving pedestrians and bicyclists, using better crumple zone technology;
  • Enhance headlight visibility standards for new cars to help prevent the 76 percent of pedestrians crashes that happen at night;
  • And last but not least, finally join the rest of the planet in requiring automakers to test how safe their vehicles are for vulnerable road users in the event of a crash, rather than just the people inside vehicles. 

Those kinds of common-sense reforms, though, are decidedly not the focus of National Pedestrian Safety Month, which is little more than a public awareness campaign dedicated to amplifying the myth that pedestrians can always prevent their own deaths by simply being alert to their surroundings. (Our coverage is here.)

The National Transportation Safety Administration kicked off the festivities yesterday with a webinar that emphasized dubious catchphrases like “safety is a shared responsibility” — ignoring the fact that the “responsibilities” of walkers, who have little more than a bit of protected infrastructure to keep them safe, are drastically different than the responsibilities of drivers, who are operating multi-ton vehicles capable of taking a human life with the press of a toe.

The Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which authored the letter before the Administration revealed the details of its effort, were disappointed but not surprised to learn they had a fight ahead of them.

“They’re taking the easy way out,” said Chase. “It’s always easier to put the onus on a pedestrian, when what [NHTSA] should be doing, as the agency charged with protecting all road users, is rulemaking on making vehicles and road users safer.”

The signatories of the letter — including members of organizations such as Consumers for America, Families for Safe Streets, the League of American Bicyclists, and even a former administrator of NHTSA itself, Joan Claybrook — say continuing pressure on the Administration will be key in getting them to take action.

“I would encourage everyone to reach out to their members of Congress and members of the Administration and express support for these policies, and remind them that they are charged with protecting the safety of all road users, says Chase. “We could make every month Pedestrian Safety Month, but until pass these measures, the bottom line is that people are going to continue to die.”

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