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Friday, July 1, 2011

Pay attention

People are dying in the streets, but not because of speeding, nor because of jay-walking. I'll submit a few illustrations, and the answer should become clear.

Anyone who knows me or has read any of this blog knows I am a fan of "the walkable city". 

However, I'm not a militant "cars are evil" kind of guy. In fact, I love driving. Not too long ago I took a road trip with a friend to Mid-Ohio Race Track, just to hang out with Tommy Byrne, the greatest race car driver you've never heard of.

I got my "365" on my 16th birthday, many moons ago, and six weeks later (on April Fool's Day, no less) I got my license, back in the good old days when a G-class licence was a full licence, and a driving test was exactly that - passing it meant I could drive.

So, I like to drive. And I like to walk. And I like to cycle. But most of all, I like to have choice as to when I do which. The "war on cars" is annoying. There's talk of lowering speed limits, and now police are ticketing jay walkers... all kinds of knee jerk reactions that really do not speak to the real issue of why people are dying in the streets. Any value from taking an aspirin when you have a headache is only temporary if you don't address the tumour.

Consider these illustrations and then, afterwards, I'll spell it out.
  • Remember the black out of 2003? Here's a statistic for you - there were no traffic accidents in Toronto/GTA during the Thursday and Friday that the lights were out. As far as I recall from the news coverage (and feel free to provide any corrective documentation to the contrary), the first accident happened Saturday morning, after partial power and been restored. And that accident happened on the 401 (where there are no traffic lights to regulate traffic anyway).
  • why do accidents happen in parking lots when everyone is driving relatively slowly?
  • why, per capita, are there less accidents on the autobahn with expanses of areas with no speed limits, than on the 401, where you can be sure that, in any given week, there'll be at least one jam during a morning or evening rush hour?
  • have you ever heard the saying "accidents happen close to home"? Why is that? What happens when people get close to home?
  • why did a pedestrian get run over by a streetcar? Was the TTC vehicle operator speeding? Was the streetcar really an evil gas-guzzling SUV? Was the TTC streetcar operator texting away on a Crackberry?
The answer to all the above is that accidents are more likely to happen when people are not paying attention and, when I say "people", I mean people, whether behind the wheel of a vehicle, atop a bicycle or walking down the street. As a driver, it doesn't take very long to find idiot pedestrians who think that their right of way means I must stop on a dime when they decide to walk right out into traffic without looking. Cars cannot stop their forward progress like pedestrians can.

As a driver, it doesn't take long to find idiot cyclists who want to be recognized as vehicles with a right to the road yet want to disobey the laws that govern vehicular use of the road. Trying to straddle both puts them in a dangerous grey area where neither drivers nor pedestrians can predict their movements. In that gap, cyclists can get killed.

As a cyclist, it doesn't take very long to realize that nobody - cars or pedestrians - see you. When cornered, the fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in, and too often cyclists are in fight mode, because flight means quitting cycling, and for too many it is more than just recreation, it's either a means to make a living or a means of transportation (winter or not, there are people who cycle year-round).

As a pedestrian, it doesn't take very long to find idiot drivers who think that I'm watching for them so they don't have to watch for me, like drivers who approach a red light looking to make a right turn before the green light cross traffic gets through the intersection, so instead of stopping at the red as they should, they accelerate while I'm about to step off the curb to cross on my green light. Nor does it take long to find a cyclist determined to keep their right of way, no matter what, jumping from street to sidewalk and back, running amber lights, leading off on greens, and generally terrorizing the streets with near immunity because, after all, they are green and not evil like car drivers.

I've armed my two children with the most powerful defensive weapon I know of - eye contact. A pedestrian's best defence is to get eye contact with a driver. It takes an instant, and in that instant there is a connection, there is unspoken communication with an oncoming driver. I've taught them that, if they can't get eye contact, they probably haven't been seen, and they themselves aren't paying enough attention.
  • when they're crossing the street, and a driver is looking to make a left turn, GET EYE CONTACT.
  • when they're about to cross the street, and a driver is heading into their right turn lane, GET EYE CONTACT.
When driving, same thing. Getting eye contact with people on the road - both other drivers as well as pedestrians. Let's revisit the black out and understand why there weren't any traffic accidents. For you drivers out there who listen to traffic reports while commuting, every time you hear of an intersection with power out, what do they tell us? "Treat it like a 4-way stop." When everyone must stop at an intersection with no lights to tell us when to go and when to stop, we must communicate with eye contact. When people are paying attention to each other and communicating, accidents are less likely to happen. It's not mysterious, but I'm shocked by how often collisions occur that could easily have been avoided, especially when people's lives are at stake.

Let me put it another way - when people expect laws and external regulation to protect them, they stop actively protecting themselves; passivity leads to less attention; less attention raises the likelihood of having an accident.

Should pedestrians be ticketed for jay-walking? I could be wrong, but I say no, and I jay-walk all the time. Why? Because when I take my life in my own hands, I must be responsible, I can't be careless nor assume others are taking care of my safety. If someone standing at a cross walk expects a driver to obey the laws and just walks out, not checking to see if the driver coming down the road has even seen them, or if they are talking to their kids in the back seat or changing their radio station, or spilled their coffee after hitting a pothole, or adjusting their heater or AC (which, by the way, are all distractions no law can prevent, making cell phones really just a scapegoat that gives lawmakers something to look busy about and gives the courts a new revenue stream), they have put their lives in the hands of someone who isn't paying attention, and they've abdicated their own responsibility to care for their own safety by not taking the time to assess whether they are safe to walk out.

When I jay-walk, I pay attention to when there's a break in traffic I can fit through safely, which makes me a more responsible and engaged participant in traffic than people who just step off the curb with not so much as a glance back to see if a driver is trying to force a right turn. (And no, I am not advocating jay-walking).

So, in my estimation, more laws is not the answer; more law enforcement is not the answer; more attention - from drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists - is a step/pedal/drive in the right direction.



Anonymous said...

this is a excellent article. I agree with your jay-walking comments: I was hit by a driver that seem to forget about me after having eye contact while crossing a busy intersection. with jay-walking you only have to watch traffic I two directions, not four.

DA said...

Hey Anonymous 23-Oct-2013 06:58

Hope you're okay. You're so right - when crossing at an intersection, one often needs to look at the vehicle wanting to make a left turn whose attention is on finding a gap in the oncoming traffic, and they haven't looked beyond the traffic to consider pedestrians, as well as the on-coming vehicles looking to make a right turn as you are almost finished crossing.

There's a lot going on in so many directions at an intersection (one reason I prefer roundabouts!) that it's important to really be paying attention in all directions.

I was hit by a car once. I was cycling on a sidewalk (that's wrong, right?) approaching an entrance to a parking lot. A car on the road travelling in the same direction was making a right turn into that parking lot entrance.

As I approached the entrance, I did not look over my left shoulder to see if any vehicles might be entering; the vehicle, on the other hand, apparently figured I would stop, so it made its turn and cut me off - I hit the right front fender of the car and was thrown over the handlebars and cleared the vehicle, landing on the other side of the car.

Who had the right of way? The cyclist on the sidewalk, or the vehicle? Perhaps I did, as the cyclist even though I was on the sidewalk.

However, my right of way did not protect me from being hit, or from hitting the car, as the case was.

If either myself or the driver had been paying better attention, the collision might have been avoided, right-of-way notwithstanding.

This is what I'm talking about.

I was lucky enough to pick myself up and continue on my way without any injury. But, what I took away from the incident was the memory that has lasted over 20 years, and a lesson about road safety and inter-modal interaction I continue to share with all who will listen - pay attention!

Anonymous said...

Great advice. Just a short word about the "accidents happen close to home". That's a simple statistical artifact: because 100% of all trips start and end at "home", irrespective of everything in between, odds are that much higher.

DA said...

Hey Anonymous May 28/2015,

Re: home odds, even though 100% of all "trips" don't start and end at home, I certainly do recognize the validity in your point!

Some "trips" start at home and end at the airport; or start at work and end at home; or start at one retail establishment and end at another retail establishment...I agree, of all "trips", most do still indeed either start or end home, and in that, you are right, there's a larger sample of trips around home in which an accident can happen.

My contention is that the preponderance of accidents happening close to home is still shaking out to something more than just the proportional number of trips that do happen close to home. I could be wrong, it's an hypothesis worth testing, but the numbers themselves seem to resonate with the other observations that attention, or lack thereof, is a common denominator in most accidents.

Here's a quick comparison; most ladder injuries happen on ladders 6' or lower. One would think that the higher the fall, the more the injuries. Yes, we can recognize that, in fact, most ladder climbs happen to be 6' or lower...studies at my work place indicate, however, that what tends to happen is people pay a lot of attention to what they're doing on a ladder when they're high up on it and the perception of danger is higher; but, when they're closer to the ground, they perceive less chance of serious injury, so they relax and stop taking the ladder-climbing precautions they were otherwise taking up high. So, it's a mix of odds coupled with attention. We can't really control the odds of doing things, we do what we need/want to do when we need/want to do it; the control factor, then, becomes a more consistent degree of attention to safety for both high and low ladder use, travelling farther away and closer to home.