Saturday, November 20, 2010

Driver's Responsibility in Pedestrian Safety

The number of pedestrian deaths on Oahu – seven* in the past two months, including some killed while in crosswalks – has the community searching for answers on how to prevent them.

The impression one gets from reading this morning’s Star-Advertiser story is that officials really don’t know the cause of these family tragedies and therefore don’t know where to concentrate their efforts to safeguard pedestrians. “There’s no specific reason or even any particular areas,” says one official. “It’s probably a combination of things.”

Here’s the problem: Drivers don’t respect pedestrians.

They don’t respect pedestrians’ right to “be in their space” on the streets by treating streets as their territory and theirs alone. Drivers just don’t care.

* 11/30 Update: Oahu Pedestrian Deaths on Pace To Double.

Having lived in Hawaii for decades and in California a much shorter time, it’s obvious to this writer that California’s “protect the pedestrian” ethic is absent in the Aloha State. Golden State drivers have it drilled into them from an early driving age that pedestrians must be respected in all circumstances – even in mid-block.

Pedestrian awareness stands out in California even though both states’ drivers manuals make it clear pedestrians are to be protected and respected. California’s drivers manual accentuates pedestrian safety at the top of its Right of Way Rules section:

“One-in-six traffic fatalities is a pedestrian…. Pedestrian safety is a serious issue…. Drive cautiously when pedestrians are near because they may cross your path…. Remember, if a pedestrian makes eye contact with you, he or she is ready to cross the street. Yield to the pedestrian….”

Hawaii’s manual also is filled with directives designed to enhance pedestrian safety:

“In Hawaii 20% of all traffic fatalities are pedestrians. Most of those killed are non-drivers…. Give motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians plenty of room on ther oad and use extra caution to look for them when making turns or changing lanes…. You MUST STOP for pedestrians in crosswalks….”

Making Comparisons

One can wander into a statistical mine field when comparing the two states’ pedestrian deaths, but it can be useful, too. In 2008, Hawaii’s 20 deaths occurred at a rate of 1.55 per 100,000 population; California’s rate was 1.69. Hawaii in 2008 had significantly fewer vehicles per capita than California – 0.37 and 0.54 respectively.

There may be dozens of reasons why one state’s pedestrian death rate is higher than another’s – demographics, climate, urban density, etc. Bottom line, Hawaii has a higher percentage of pedestrian fatalities among all accidents than California, and authorities are searching for ways in the near- and long-term to reduce their number.

Crafting the Message

The absence of a California-like “pedestrian safety ethic” may explain a good deal of Hawaii’s experience. You just don’t get the same community-wide top-of-mind feeling that pedestrians are vulnerable and drivers must respect that vulnerability.

We’d feel a lot more comfortable that our authorities were prepared to improve this situation if they were communicating a definitive message about the causes of these deaths – not wondering about it, as suggested in the official’s quote above.

Enforcement of existing speeding and right-of-way laws by the Honolulu Police Department may be one area to examine. According to today’s story, police have cited motorists 2.5 times per day so far this year for failing to yield to pedestrians. They've cited pedestrians 11.1 times daily in the same period – more than 4 times as often as driver violations.

Maybe the discrepancy is explained by jaywalking being easier to spot at a distance. But just maybe driver behavior isn’t receiving an appropriate amount of attention and top-down command emphasis in the pedestrian safety campaign. Drivers are the ones doing the killing, after all.

The Rail Tie-In

Once Honolulu rail is in operation, the train stations will be magnets for pedestrians – attracting them to access a system that will provide fast, frequent, reliable and safe transportation across the city.

Pedestrian safety in the station's neighborhoods will be a key component of the system’s eventual success or failure, a point that receives ongoing attention at the StreetsBlog Network linked near the top of this page.

Those rail system concerns are years away for most of us, but the issue of pedestrian safety and law enforcement is with all of us today. Greater awareness among drivers of their responsibilities and more emphasis by authorities on driver behavior undoubtedly would improve pedestrian safety now.

1 comment:

Hannah in Manoa said...

I encourage you and your readers to read "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says about Us," by Tom Vanderbilt (2009). Vanderbilt's book explains that the reason walking and cycling in Honolulu is unsafe is that the roads are built to expedite auto travel above everything else.

For example, to solve the speeding problem on Pali Hwy./Nuuanu St., remove one lane in each direction. Speed is controlled by volume; since Pali Hwy. never approaches capacity because it is controlled by traffic signals at each end, cars tend to speed up when they enter the three lane section makai or Old Pali Hwy. Narrowing the road to two lanes would also reduce the distance pedestrians must walk between safety refuges.

The outside lanes could be turned into bus and cycle lanes, and perhaps right turn lanes during peak hours to relieve congestion.