Sunday, January 13, 2008

Berkeley Pedestrians In The "Driver's Seat"

Lest anyone believe I am a kneejerk P.C. liberal, this is a Letter to the Editor I recently sent to our local rag. The context: a recent pedestrian death from an oncoming car, one of four such Berkeley deaths in 2007. Local pols are starting to get on their soapboxes and, predictably, they are placing blame on the drivers, rather than holding pedestrians responsible for the dangerous situations they create.

This is short and inflammatory to fit the LTTE format. I'm working on a much longer version that will present a well-reasoned rational argument, including the choices Berkeley pedestrians make, the alternative choices possible, letting the reader decide which is safer and more rational.

To state the glaringly obvious: the greatest danger to pedestrians in Berkeley are the pedestrians themselves. Whatever the many virtues of walking, the overwhelming majority of pedestrians consistently behave ignorantly, arrogantly, and/or selfishly when entering our roadways, putting themselves and others at risk. They seem to believe their moral superiority ("I'm an ecological pedestrian, you're a planet-killing driver") or perceived legal right-of-way ("All cars must halt for MEEEEE") will magically stop all vehicles. Or maybe they are just too busy zoning to their iPods, or exchanging important gossip on their cell phones to care. Unfortunately, in the real world, vehicles don't always stop in time.

The collisions are not, as has been suggested, predominantly a result of Berkeley car culture, but rather of Berkeley pedestrian culture. Instead of rushing to blame speeding cars, we should be asking why pedestrians are in such a damn hurry to cross the street. If Berkeley pedestrians simply treated cars as the dangerous 2.5 ton missiles they are by 1) avoiding crossing streets in front of nearby oncoming vehicles, and 2) crossing cautiously under all conditions, vehicle-pedestrian collisions would be entirely eliminated except for the most unique unfortunate circumstances. Regardless of whether drivers behave recklessly or responsibly, pedestrians are nearly always "in the drivers seat" in regards their own safety. Right now, they invariably choose to drive their safety off the nearest cliff and take their chances. "Precaution" does not exist in the vocabulary of the Berkeley pedestrian, and THAT is the problem.

Having spent nearly 40 of my 50 years elsewhere, and speaking as both a driver and pedestrian, the lack of regard Berkeley pedestrians show for their own safety is appalling. I'm amazed the injury and fatality rates aren't much higher. It's time Berkeley pedestrians grew up and behaved responsibly- that is, if they truly want to protect themselves instead of digging up scapegoats to fit whatever irrational ideology they've adopted to support their narcissistic behavior. I look forward to the day when a Berkeley pedestrian actually looks both ways before crossing a street (especially when they are pushing a baby carriage; even looking one way would be an improvement), or waits for a line of twenty cars to pass instead of forcing them all to brake and idle, wasting gas and spewing emissions, so one single solitary self-absorbed "green" pedestrian can mosey across.


John said...

You're right and you're wrong. Yes, some Berkeley pedestrians are just flat-out amazing in their clueless rudeness.

But Berkeley drivers can be jerks too,and a jerk piloting two tons of steel is, for my money, the worse kind of jerk. I both drive and walk in Berkeley, and if I had a nickel for every pedestrian I've seen nearly getting his toes run over by some clown in a car, in the middle of the street, when the ped clearly had the right of way, I could retire now.

The law (you can look it up): in a crosswalk, or even in an intersection, the pedestrian has the right of way. He's not entitled to step in front of your car; but you're not entitled to zoom through the intersection in front of him. Once he's legally gained the crosswalk, he owns the whole fucking thing, curb to curb. Deal with it.

Berkeley Bernie said...

Thanks for the comment John, and helping make my point: cars are dangerous, and the best way to avoid that danger as a pedestrian is NOT to put yourself in front of them when at all possible.

There are some who read my post/letter to the editor and still miss the point. It's not about who's legally right and wrong, it's not about who are the bigger jerks, drivers or pedestrians, it's not about being pro-car or anti-pedestrian. it's about *practical* steps one can take immediately to lower the number of collisions between vehicles in pedestrians. The simple fact is that one cannot be hit by a moving vehicle if one does not step in front of one, regardless of right-of-way. In most cases, the option is there for a pedestrian to allow traffic to pass. Almost invariably, Berkeley pedestrians make the less safe choice.

Most times I've seen situations like you've described, it's a situation that the pedestrian could have avoided or actually helped create: i.e. someone crossing late on a light, with drivers waiting to make left turns when the oncoming traffic clears. The pedestrian makes no note of the line of cars waiting to turn, nor of the flashing red indicating it is no longer safe to cross. They have no concern that they cannot cross the street before the light turns against them. So now you have a situation where the cars are committed to a left turn, but a pedestrian has selfishly blocked a safe turn.

The statistics show that nearly half of the pedestrian fatalities over the last decade in Berkeley were determined to be the fault of the pedestrian. I suggest it could be zero with the application of simple common sense, and a community sense of mutually creating flow: looking at the whole picture rather than one's individual desire. While I see the large majority of drivers making efforts to allow pedestrian flow, I see nearly no efforts by pedestrians to create flow for drivers (which, let's be frank, *is* the purpose of roadways: a right-of-way for wheeled vehicles, for the purpose of speedy travel).

Just Friday afternoon, on a 1 mile trip from UC Berkeley to my home, at two separate stoplights I encountered pedestrians entering the intersection AFTER the light had turned red, into oncoming traffic (me) without even looking in my direction. I braked and beeped of course, but it's no surprise pedestrians get hit when they behave in such an ignorant fashion.

Each incident, of course, requires independent examination, and I hope any task forces on traffic look at the exact conditions contributing to each occurrence: time of day, visibility, distractions to driver and pedestrian, etc. Determining fault is not enough, because people aren't perfect. One has to assume a level of error, and then see what contributing factors may actually greatly increase the chance of error. Then we can make recommendations specific to each problem location that will improve safety in that particular location. Blanket solutions are not solutions at all.

In the meantime, before we achieve a car-less utopia (yes, I actually support lower car use, walk-streets, etc.), pedestrians should look before they cross the street, and choose to avoid placing themselves in the path of oncoming cars whenever possible.

Anonymous said...

I have an ex who lives in Berkeley, and who actually slows down in sidewalks to make cars wait longer.

I hope he read your letter, and I hope it made him apoplectic. Unfortunately, it probably didn't make him a politer pedestrian.

Anonymous said...

crosswalks -- slows down in crosswalks

Sorry 'bout that.

birdingal said...

When I drive, I want the car in front of me to drive faster so I can go faster, and I want pedestrians to wait for ME!


When I walk, I want cars to drive slower, and I want cars to wait for ME!

Either way I'm right...ha ha ha, go figure!

No, really, when behind the wheel I try and think "slow, slow, slow" because we are ALL driving too quickly. I wish Berkeley would make some roads BIKE/PEDESTRIAN ONLY routes, with no cars allowed. I like the idea of downtown Shattuck banning all auto traffic - whew, cool down, slow down, enjoy the get the point.