On Pedestrian Fatalities: Let's Just Admit That We're Okay with This

headlamp-2940_1920.jpg

It Began as a Pedestrian Evening

On Tuesday of this week, I was planning to take a short road trip with a friend down to Ames, IA to see a college basketball game. I didn't have any particular connection to the game. It was an excuse to hang out, the kind of thing you do because why not? We didn't end up making the trek, and it turned out that was probably a good thing.

By early afternoon, a snowstorm was causing havoc with driving across much of Minnesota, so much so that chunks of major roadways were closed altogether. Had we tried to go, it's possible we would have been just fine. It's possible we'd have given up somewhere along the way and either turned around or hunkered down somewhere for the night. It's possible we'd have ended up in real danger.

When a snowstorm clobbered the east coast, particularly the Washington D.C. area, a week or so ago, many of us in points further north and more accustomed to large snowfalls sneered at the freakouts that lead to store shelves stripped bare. I'll admit, it's sorta funny to see people rush to buy up every spare roll of toilet paper. What exactly were you planning to do during the storm, D.C.? I don't want to come to that party.

For all our sneering, we only handle these storms marginally better here. Part of this is, yes, we have a bit more experience with it, but mostly I think it's because we've spent money on infrastructure that's intended to grapple with this stuff. The combination of those two things means we don't feel compelled to shut everything down, and we don't panic that we'll run out of basic supplies.

This Is the Way It Works

But we still see dozens of car crashes and other issues every time we get this kind of weather. During Tuesday's storm, a pedestrian in downtown Minneapolis was run over and dragged fifty feet while crossing a street. Sadly, she later passed away. This hits home for me because, as I often mention, I prefer to walk most places so I spend more time traveling on foot than I do in other transportation modes. I am acutely aware of the experience of being a pedestrian, and I think about it often. Secondly, the collision occurred near where I caught a bus home just a few minutes earlier. In fact, I had passed through the exact intersection where this happened on my way to the stop. This could so easily have been me, it's hard not to dwell on it a bit.

There's already been plenty of the usual concern trolling whereby people have suggested that, because the weather was so crummy, the woman should have been extra careful. This is a particularly insidious way of blaming the victim, especially when it's been reported that she was crossing the street with the walk signal and with other people around her. What more could she do?

But even that's not what bothers me about this.

Courtesy of PEDS Atlanta

I know that life itself is dangerous and that we can't avoid every instance of something tragic like this. But we've built a transportation system that significantly increases the likelihood of this kind of thing happening.

We design roads to allow cars to move as quickly as possible, and we funnel them all onto our major roadways at roughly the same two rush hour times five days a week. The speed limit on most downtown Minneapolis streets is 30 miles per hour, and roads are often designed in ways that allow cars to move much faster. This is despite the fact that getting hit at that 30 MPH will kill 50% of the victims and this is in a place where there are thousands of people walking around each day.

Unintended but Completely Foreseeable Consequences

It's a terribly fragile system. The emphasis on throughput during ideal conditions gives us utterly unrealistic expectations that it should always go so smoothly, even in dense urban areas where auto travel should be slow and difficult. And when those conditions aren't present, it gets messy quickly. Tragedies like the one during Tuesday's storm are not accidents. They are the byproduct of a system focused almost exclusively on one mode of travel. We can crow all we want about individual responsibility–whether by blaming the victim for not anticipating a car taking an illegal turn in bad conditions or by prosecuting the driver for what might constitute vehicular manslaughter–but in the end this is much bigger than this incident.

The system is working the way it was designed, and the way it was designed means that pedestrians get killed sometimes. And while that would probably be true in any version of a modern transportation system, let's not kid ourselves that this is the absolute only way we could do things. We could make streets narrower to slow cars down. We could make more areas pedestrian only, closing them off to vehicles so that walkers can know they are safe without needing to be hyperaware of possible danger. We could limit turns on red lights more. We could punish drivers who hit or kill those on foot with stronger penalties and more jail time (or any jail time at all). There's plenty we could do, if we wanted to.

But we don't. I wish we'd just admit that we're all apparently okay with dead pedestrians as collateral damage for ensuring cars can travel quickly. At least that would be honest.