Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

A closer look at who's responsible in pedestrian crashes

June 13, 2012 - 09:37 AM
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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Walking isn't always safe in big cities. Our local Street Smart campaign will tell you of the accidents, the deaths, the problem of drivers and bicyclists and pedestrians who ignore responsible awareness and caution. But just what causes pedestrian crashes?

The District Department of Transportation has collected data from all pedestrian crashes from 2004 to 2010 and crunched the numbers. About half of these crashes happened when the pedestrian was in the crosswalk (legally or not), which affirms the recent D.C. police remarks on the crosswalk remaining the most dangerous spot for pedestrians.

Here's the breakdown for all the crashes in which a pedestrian was struck for these seven years — we're talking about 4,800 crashes total, with an average number of accidents of about 687 a year and nearly two a day:

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: DDOT)

"We have seen an upward trend in people being struck," said George Branyan, DDOT's pedestrian program coordinator, "but we have more people on the sidewalks [in recent years]."

Branyan is a man who believes in the complexities of these data points, and he's not inclined to place blame on any one group — sometimes drivers act incorrectly, sometimes pedestrians do, but the reality is often far more complicated and what he's interested in is engineering a system that serves both pedestrians and drivers in a fundamentally safer way. He points to the influence driving speed has on pedestrian fatalities, a concern also guiding calming measures in Chicago.

Most troubling about this graph is the fact that the highest number of crashes (23% on average) happen in a crosswalk with an appropriate traffic signal. That was 188 people struck in 2010, to give you a concrete sense of how many we're talking about. These individuals are frequently free of blame and are only at fault if they did something sudden, such as racing out into the crosswalk. These collisions often happen when the driver is turning left or right. Yet Branyan explained that the metrics in the graph above don't always reveal blame upon closer scrutiny. Nearly 22% of collisions happened when the pedestrian was "not in crosswalk" but Branyan explained that these pedestrians aren't necessarily acting illegally. It's perfectly legal to cross in the middle of the block as long it's not between adjacent intersections with traffic signals at their crosswalks. But the pedestrian, in crossing mid-block, does give up their right of way to any automobiles. Some of these "not in crosswalk" pedestrians are jaywalking while others may be observing traffic laws without a problem.

"The first duty of a pedestrian is to not step in front of a vehicle that cannot yield," Branyan remarked.

The various types of crosswalks have their own complexities. Marked crosswalks without a stop sign or light can create their own risks and confusion, for instance, on large roads such as on Georgia Avenue, where there are many places marked for pedestrians but no formal signal that cars should stop. Will vehicles actually slow or stop? Will pedestrians be brave enough to assert their right of way and risk it? Branyan says it's popular to include pedestrian crosswalk paint out of a belief it's better than nothing, but he said this is not always true on major, multilane roads. The speed of the road, number of automobiles, and lack of formal stopping measures can create uncertainty. Unmarked crosswalks, which exist by law even without any pedestrian paint lines in any intersection, feature relatively few accidents, based on the data above. Branyan ultimately refers back to DDOT's various pedestrian measures under his purview, from road speed to subtle traffic calming initiatives to the elusiveness of determining factors in these collisions and in their relationship to traffic fatalities. DDOT outlined the city's 24 most dangerous intersections for pedestrians earlier this year. Traffic fatalities have fallen throughout recent years but as Branyan says, pedestrian crashes remain relatively high. DDOT estimates an average of about 15 pedestrian deaths a year.

Learn more about DDOT's pedestrian safety initiatives at its website here.

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