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Sure, Blame the Drivers — But it’s the Street Design At Fault

Photo headshot of Mike McGinn on a beige background.This blog was written by America Walks’ Executive Director, Mike McGinn. Mike got his start in local politics as a neighborhood activist pushing for walkability.  From there he founded a non-profit focused on sustainable and equitable growth, and then became mayor of Seattle. Read more about Mike here.

Garden Grove did a sting operation for failure to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk and handed out 89 citations in an evening. The video has been shared hundreds of times on social media, and with good reason. A pedestrian in a high visibility vest waits mid-crosswalk as cars fly by, then the motorcycle cops slide out from a side road to nab the wrongdoers. Time and again. The video is both mesmerizing and terrifying. One feels that the pedestrian might just get nailed by a high speed vehicle at any moment.

The comment threads to the video are a mess, devolving into arguments about reckless drivers, reckless pedestrians and predatory cops just trying to raise money. The real villain? A multi-lane street designed to encourage speeding, sending clear signals to drivers that they have priority over any other user. The painted crosswalk can’t overcome all the signals to drivers that it’s clear sailing ahead.

a photo still image from the video that is being described in the blog - shows a car nearly missing a pedestrian in a bright vest walking across a "protected" crosswalk.

Particularly terrifying is the sequence where a driver in one lane stops for the pedestrian, shielding him from view from a rapidly passing car in the adjacent lane. This street is designed for disaster.

And the reality is that even a night of 89 citations – of police motorcycles with lights flashing swinging in behind drivers – is going to have limited deterrent effect. A few drivers may be more careful for a short period, but then human nature will take over. The road looks fine for moving fast, the driver’s peripheral vision narrows (as it does at higher speeds) and it’s not realistic to go from 40 to 0 when you finally see a pedestrian nearby. At America Walks, we’d bet you that the police could go to that spot a month from now and hand out another 89 citations. And there are probably crosswalks like that all over town. 

Let’s not forget one more hazard: Which is that one of those stops might lead to a deadly escalating encounter as happened to Duante Wright, Sandra Bland or Philando Castile

None of this is to pick on Garden Grove. This street design is endemic to our nation’s cities and towns. Its design philosophy, prioritizing car speed and throughput over safety is why we have a pedestrian safety crisis, with pedestrian deaths increasing 45% over the last decade. It’s why we’re calling on Secretary Pete to fix the MUTCD, the manual that controls local street design.

When you have a type of infrastructure that is proven to fail again and again, it’s time to fix the infrastructure. No amount of enforcement can work in that situation, and we know how to slow the cars and create safe crossings.  That’s a choice cities and towns must make if they truly value safety.