Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Street Smart kicks off its fall 2011 pedestrian awareness campaign

November 15, 2011 - 04:12 PM
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(Photo: Street Smart)

Not long ago, I relayed the news that our former District Department of Transportation director Gabe Klein has installed mannequins throughout Chicago to spotlight pedestrian deaths that occurred last year and to urge people to be more careful.

At the time, I considered the bigger pedestrian safety issues that face our traffic system and what DDOT is doing. The metro region's Street Smart campaign, which began in 2002 and deals with just these issues, launched its fall campaign recently. It will run from November 6 to December 3 and officially kicked off at an event in Silver Spring yesterday afternoon. Expect more signs, more caution, and more awareness. With the same cautionary spirit that Klein exercised in Chicago with his mannequins, Silver Spring, Maryland has added "Do Not Cross" markers to the some of their curbs in a pilot program on Piney Branch Road in response to the 13 pedestrian-car collisions that happened last year, WAMU reports. Street Smart was out there promoting awareness throughout the afternoon during the kickoff.

And another thing — these campaigns mean more citations. The Street Smart website proudly notes that in the spring of 2011 and fall of 2010 campaigns, "4,220 citations and 3,785 warnings were issued to motorists, pedestrians and cyclists." No one likes getting tickets, and this is all the more reason, beyond ethics and safety, to be more vigilant.

Yet how effective is fear at making people follow the law?

Pedestrian safety mannequins, "Do Not Cross" yellow signs, Street Smart videos, the other pedestrian cautionary traffic signals and posters spread throughout the city ... so many of them appeal to that classic attention-grabber of fear. The goal of these efforts is for people to recognize the real danger in our traffic system and exercise greater caution. It's a fair goal and desire for any city agency or pedestrian advocacy group to have, and these campaigns, in which core messages are repeated time after time, are an excellent step at achieving it. The strategy, after all, worked rather well in demonizing the desire to drive drunk over the last half century.

But the fear-based efforts, from the citations to the ads to the mannequins, miss a core element of human behavior that results in these occasional deaths and collisions, and that's the inherent recklessness of many people in our transportation system. Whether driving or on foot, people are, as some pedestrians pointed out in the WAMU story, in a hurry, and in nowhere more apparently than in D.C. The education efforts required to get people to pay attention to pedestrians and broader safety issues are monumental. They'll take time and they'll take a lot of Street Smart-style campaigns. And even then, no campaign can be 100% successful, nor would that be, I imagine, a metric the planners would suggest is likely. Demonizing any behavior takes time, as we learned with drunk driving, and transportation officials, planners, and many community leaders are today attempting to elevate our pedestrian awareness and demonize behaviors like distracted driving.

Because the desire to rush, especially when pedestrians have the illusion of safety, is extraordinarily strong. The individual person never tends to believe that bad things will happen to them. Why not cross the street if there don't seem to be any cars coming? I see that pedestrian instinct at play every day, just as a glance at Facebook shows more than a few drivers who joke that pedestrians are just speed bumps. Bicyclists and drivers have their own safety issues, as the D.C. Council has likely heard much about in the last two weeks. Maybe a "Do Not Cross" marker will stop one or two people who would have casually stepped into traffic. Will it stop all though? Doubtful. And that's okay — there's only so much education and so much signage that a city can do, and government eventually has to rely on its citizens to exercise their judgment and proper understanding of danger and safety in traffic.

Take these few weeks of pedestrian awareness to heart here in the D.C. metro region — as we know, November is an especially dangerous month for those us out there on foot. The skies today are already looking rather dark.

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