I always close my eyes passing the intersection where a classmate was run down by a truck last Wednesday. My mind loops the sound of crunched human bones.
It was 10 a.m. when a truck swerved erratically for nearly a mile before crashing through a student from behind.1 She was nowhere near a crossing. Tests have not yet revealed if the driver was under the influence. 2
This death is tragic, and hopefully isolated. I anticipate it will renew discussions of safety and crossing design on campus. Both are important, but place burdens disproportionately on drivers. That’s only half of the equation.
The wrong place and the wrong time cost my classmate her life this week. Looking forward, I don’t believe restrictions on driving laws alone can stop these sorts of tragedies. What I’ll do is reflect, and try to change my own behavior. Rewiring pedestrian confidence may keep the rest of us safer. We need to walk like we drive.
The college campus I call home spoils pedestrians. Main street intersections stop all cars for diagonal crossing. The crosswalk outside my office comes equipped with neon safety cones and an audio loop scolding drivers robotically: “Cross street with caution. Vehicles may not stop.”
Pedestrians are the darlings of right-of-way legislation. As of 2010, vehicles in Illinois must come to a full stop if so much as a pinky toe enters a crosswalk.3 Still, this law requires pedestrians to actually use crosswalks.
It’s easy to feel entitled when the world is legally required to stop for you. I’m as guilty as they come, though jaywalker is a heavy title. I much prefer crosswalk inventor. Don’t see stripes? Imagine them and cross where you please! My usual technique follows a boomerang trajectory: I’ll begin in a crosswalk, but realize I can save 6 seconds by arcing diagonally and continuing through the street.
Yes, I’m guilty, but I’m a majority. Anyone who has ever taken more than 3 seconds to reflect on their walking patterns will realize that most pedestrians are horrible at being pedestrians. Perhaps this comes from the law’s coddling, or the reasonable assumption that 99.9% of drivers want to avoid manslaughter charges.
Driving is a defensive practice guided by design, which usually attempts to prevent worst-case scenarios. Operating a vehicle requires licensing and at least minimal training. Sobriety assumed, driving is at least somewhat organized and deliberate. Here are the best habits — some guided gently by the law — that pedestrians should borrow from drivers.
Assume the worst about everyone. When meeting people, this is awful advice. When moving around people, not so much. Assume everyone is crazy until proven otherwise. Hesitate before walking ahead of another person or bike. Slow down a bit at intersections and turns, especially those with objects blocking full view – a kid on a skateboard may or may not be barreling around the corner.
Look behind your shoulder every few minutes. Good drivers habitually check side mirrors and blind spots. As a pedestrian, it’s easy to assume others are looking out for you. Don’t. Bikes attempting to cut through dense campus foot paths move several times faster and may try to turn suddenly. It’s hardly proper etiquette, but I’ve seen enough face plants in this situation. Just last week, a biker fell off and into a stairway to dodge me — on a walking path — as I turned unknowingly in front of him. Subtle body language may be the only tip-off before a pedestrian changes direction. Others won’t always move carefully. A small cue can go a long way.
Let your senses do their jobs. Texting while driving is outlawed in 39 states.4 Ear buds on drivers are illegal in four.5 How is it acceptable for pedestrians to bury their senses while crossing a street? Same setting, same stakes, and different expectations. We act faster on cues when all of our senses are alert. Texting is an obvious impairment. Headphones block out approaching skateboard wheels, voices, animals, and even sirens. When pedestrians use technology and assume drivers won’t, they externalize attention that both sides should be paying.
Sympathize. When the law bends in your favor, don’t flaunt it. Pedestrians flock aggressively across main streets and can stall drivers upwards of 5 minutes during peak campus traffic. Drivers’ frustrations may wear their concentration. Try to understand what it’s like to be cut off. Take 15 seconds to let a long-stalled car go every once and a while. It might even feel good.
Walking is chaotic at best. Unlike driving, there are no set guidelines for speed, direction, or interactions with others. Crossing rules are harder to enforce. Pedestrians are physically underpowered, yet assume protection by virtue of others’ attention. That mentality would be suicide to a driver. Since 64% of Illinoisans above 16 are licensed to drive — and most should walk at least occasionally — how can such a dichotomy exist? 6 Mentalities behind the wheel and on foot are entirely different. They don’t have to be.