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Dangerous Distraction: Why treating streets as highways & people on foot as criminals makes Seattle more dangerous

Like zombies, they walk among us, texting, checking emails, talking, selecting music — and, according to a study published Wednesday, oblivious to cars, trucks, lights, crosswalks and the concentration required to get through urban intersections alive.

Screenshot of the ST homepage

This is the actual lead sentence in a Seattle Times story that occupied the front page of the Seattle Times homepage for much of Thursday.

The story promotes the same dangerous ideas that have turned our urban streets from places to deadly speedways, and places the blame for collisions between motor vehicles and people walking squarely on scofflaw walkers as though these hordes of “zombies” are mindless piles of skin with no desire to protect their own lives.

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Instead of presenting the people studied as exactly that—people walking in Seattle—the story presents them as some marginal transportation mode observed breaking the strict rules of a transportation system that is not responsible for the pattern of death and injury in its wake.

First off, there has been no increase in collisions involving people walking since smart phones and other mobile devices grew to near ubiquity in Seattle (as the story seems to imply). The Seattle Department of Transportation’s 2010 Traffic Report shows that, adjusted for population growth, the number of collisions involving people walking is depressingly unchanged from 2002. Some would say this means the city is not investing enough in the safety of people on foot, but it certainly shows no significant increase to match this distracted walking theory.

But really, all of this is beside the point. The fact is, the vast majority of collisions between motor vehicles and people walking are the fault of the person driving. And when it comes to be inattention, distraction of people driving is far more likely to be a contributing circumstance to a collision than someone walking distracted. Here’s some data from SDOT’s 2010 traffic report:

From a Road Safety Summit fact sheet

So really, I could just stop there, since the graph very clearly destroys the main point of the Times story. But there’s still more to say.

Of all the moments in the story, this is my favorite:

People distracted by pets or children were almost three times as likely to skip looking both ways.

What an amazing illustration of how far removed from the reality of human life our traffic system has become! In the eyes of our traffic system and this story, the joys of family and pet ownership are simply “distractions” that make a “pedestrian” less likely to follow every bullet point on the researchers’ safety checklist.

There is no room for love, joy, family, music or friendship here. You know, the things that people live for.

Like SDOT Director Peter Hahn has said on many occasions, streets are places, not tubes for cars. Healthy, vibrant cities require streets that value human life—both in terms of protecting people from injury and promoting activities that make people happy.

UPDATE: For a visual representation of the terrifying walking environment our traffic system has created in our city, I love the following drawing (I can’t find the source for the life of me. If you know, please leave it in the comments Thanks, Gene and Chris, for finding out that it is from the Swedish Road Directorate):

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31 responses to “Dangerous Distraction: Why treating streets as highways & people on foot as criminals makes Seattle more dangerous”

  1. Dylan

    not to mention the accompanying article on the evils of bus bulbs


    I am assuming at this point that the majority of the folks at the Times live in Kirkland and drive in everyday.

    1. mike archambault

      I actually thought Mike Lindblom did a nice job on that bus bulb article. It was well written and balanced, describing bus bulbs as what they are: improvements meant to prioritize bus traffic and people space over car flow. No secrets there.
      This inattentive pedestrian article was worthless though…thanks for calling them out on it, Tom.

      1. Eli

        My understanding is that Mike gets to write his articles, but not his headlines.

    2. Tom Fucoloro

      Actually, I think that bus bulb story is pretty good. It’s the headline that’s terrible and divisive.

      Most of the story is spent explaining why they work well, and suggests that people will simply adjust once they’re used to it. Which is true.

      1. Brian

        Agreed. I braced myself for the worst after reading the bus bulb headline, but was pleasantly surprised by the article. I avoid reading the comments in the Times, however, so “the worst” may be found there.

  2. Gene

    I take your point, and partly agree, but if you look a little more broadly, and can get past the agenda, there is evidence that so many people having their noses in cell phones all the time does have consequences for our personal safety. It’s not just about cars:


    Maybe “zombies” is not the right word, but I think it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that texting/ipoding pedestrians are NOT like pedestrians of the past. They are very often not engaged and aware. As a cyclist, it is just one more thing to worry about. Maybe it’s different for bike commuters on Dexter and those kind of routes where you’re not dealing with lost of peds, but I live and work downtown and almost all of my cycling is on downtown streets, so I deal with this all the time. Sure, I don’t want to be hit by an inattentive driver, but I also don’t want to be the one to hit an inattentive pedestrian.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Sure. I agree that increased distraction is a huge safety issue. But, it seems a bit crazy to me that the article does not even mention distracted driving, let alone point out how astronomically more dangerous it is than distracted walking.

      At the same time, another part of me wonders if people really are more distracted than they were in the 90s (or earlier). People walking while reading newspapers was probably not all that much safer, and those were sold on street corners for decades.

      Traveling is part of life, not an an interlude between life segments (as it sometimes feels, especially when stuck driving in traffic on a daily commute). I feel like that is also missing from the story. As people’s lived move onto mobile devices, they are going to use them. When you do it while walking, it is a little more dangerous to your own health. When you do it while driving, you could kill someone.

  3. Gene

    Yes, I agree 100% that the story should have mentioned inattentive drivers — they’re worse.

    But the reason I posted that WSJ article is because there is in fact evidence that people are more distracted. The percentages of people reading newspapers on the street in the past could not compare with cell phone use today. It’s an issue.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      OK, I can agree with that.

  4. Ride Safely

    I appreciated that you did some of your own analysis of the article in the Times. I agree, it seemed to home in only on the pedestrians’ behavior. That said, I have to agree with the commenter Gene that distraction isn’t just limited to pedestrians and drivers. I think it’s a crisis in our society – distraction has become the norm, and I think the fact that many are NOT paying attention is harmful to our society. So many things are missed when a person’s mind is elsewhere rather than where they are, exactly. Back to the column on your blog, I have problems with the number of bicyclists wearing headphones. They seem to never speak up when passing me, and like the pedestrians wearing headphones, they seem to go faster (which isn’t safe next to me in the bike lane!). There seems to be tolerance of it, which is a concern to me. For our safety on the road, we all need to be able to communicate with one another.

    Thanks again.

  5. Bryan Willman

    Any city of size will need vast areas of thru-passage transport – just as a large part of the volume of your body is taken up by your circulatory system. People really do need to be able to go fairly long distances, carrying fairly heavy collections of stuff. And things like food and garbage need to be moved. So “thru” streets are required. And “quickly” matters.

    And responding to any story about how a cyclist or pedestrian was ever at fault for anything by saying “they didn’t talk about distracted drivers!” is silly.
    SOME blame for SOME incidents falls upon pedestrians or cyclists. Like the youngish woman who walked into the side of my stopped car. At rest, at a stop-light, well clear of the cross-walk -> SHE walked INTO it. You just have to accept that was her fault. Likewise the cyclists who blatently run stop-lights.

    Yes, distracted and drunk drivers are very serious issue, particularly in Kirkland where I live and ride and sometimes even walk. But that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t pay attention while cycling and walking.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Look at the graph of contributing circumstances in collisions. You cannot justifiably talk about distraction as a factor in collisions without at least mentioning the primary cause of such collisions. The report is about people walking, so understand that they are the focus of the story. But come on. It’s like ignoring the bull in the China shop (to steal from Copenhagenize).

      1. Gene

        Tom, one thing it seems you don’t adjust for is the decrease in pedestrian traffic in Seattle. You adjusted for population growth, but did you adjust for the fewer pedestrians? Because according to that SDOT report, the population has grown but the number of pedestrians has actually shrunk–and the number of peds seems like a more important figure than the number of people who reside here. So if the number of accidents is the same, but the number of pedestrians has declined, then the rate of accidents has actually increased.
        Or am I misunderstanding how you calculated the data?

      2. Tom Fucoloro

        I highly doubt the number of people walking has actually decreased. The 2010 traffic report says DSA holiday and summer pedestrian counts showed declines from 2007-2010. However, the Census survey shows a stunning 24 percent growth in people walking to work: http://seattlebikeblog.com/2012/09/25/bike-commute-numbers-unchanged-in-2011-census-survey/

        So I’m not sure about the decline in pedestrians. Maybe it was simply tied to reduced jobs? I don’t think it means people walk less (but I could see them shopping downtown less during the height of the recession). But still, good point. I wonder what they are seeing these days.

      3. Bryan Willman

        Tom, the rules of public debate do not require that the largest bull in the china shop be the only thing ever discussed. If they did mortality, war, and crushing poverty in large parts of the world would be the only things on the agenda ever, and Seattle would never make the agenda since essentially nothing in Seattle rises to that level.

        It’s perfectly legit to talk about the misbehavoir of the police, or the misbehavoir of pedestrians, even though criminals and failures of driving are generally larger problems.

        Since no-one here seem to be suggesting that people do NOT actually suffer from being distracted by texts, calls, and other things, and that they DO actually engage in less than ideal behavoirs near roads, I think the base point of the article is legit.

        It does NOT make sense to say “we’ll refuse to address any aspect of pedestrian behavoir until all drivers and cyclists are perfect” that is NOT the way the real world works.

      4. Tom Fucoloro

        It’s quite a stretch to suggest I said such a thing.

      5. Bryan, you’re being obtuse. In an article that’s specifically about danger to pedestrians crossing roads the behavior of drivers on those roads is obviously relevant. The very premise of the article is, at the least, vastly out of proportion.

  6. Matthew

    Maybe you did this for the purpose of irony, but what’s funny about the cartoon image you posted above is that I think it fairly accurately depicts the way the sidewalks really were in old Seattle in the Pioneer Square area 100+ years ago, as the street level was being raised one story up. The more things change…

  7. Gene

    Honestly, I find the SDOT report really hard to understand. They don’t explain a lot. The tables with contributing circumstances for drivers and pedestrians in collisions makes no sense to me, though I feel like I must be missing something. How can a pedestrian be exceeding the speed limit? Or operating defective equipment?

  8. I had figured out the origin of that picture about a year ago. It was from Sweden, I think. I can’t track it down now either.

  9. Gene

    The image is from the Swedish Road Directorate, apparently.

  10. merlin

    Thanks, Tom. Here’s what I observed today:
    – a person driving south on 15th Ave. East attempted to pass the #10 bus as it pulled into traffic on 15th. The driver eventually pulled back to avoid crashing into the bus.
    – a person driving south on 16th Ave. E. turned left onto eastbound East Thomas as a #43 bus started to pull out from a stop. The driver took up the entire westbound lane to get around the bus, causing oncoming traffic to abruptly stop.
    – as the #11 bus dropped off passengers at 23rd and Madison, a person driving a taxi pulled around the bus, crossing the double-yellow center line to do so. Six more people driving cars followed the taxi as the bus started to pull out.

    I should mention that I did observe one person driving a car who did in fact yield to a bus.

  11. Law Abider

    Forget about texting pedestrians being a danger on the street. They are a danger to the rest of us pedestrians walking on the sidewalk!

    But in all seriousness, I don’t know of this “terrifying walking environment our traffic system has created in our city”. But I live in Ballard, work downtown/SLU and frequent Fremont, U-District, Capital Hill on bus or bike. Maybe the terrifying walking environment is for those that live on Aurora or Rainier Ave? Would somebody care to elaborate?

    1. Jeremy

      Let’s see, I have a coworker who often tells me how many cars try to run him down at the same intersection on Roosevelt (apparently they’re craning their necks the other way and then because nobody walks they’re all like OMG! a pedestrian after they’ve floored it)–same story at one of the exits to University Village, where there is also often a “whoops, teehee, sorry Mr. Pedestrian, hair flip” reaction. Granted, he usually tries to avoid Roosevelt because of the thick carfug (yum yum for the lungs! how about some cancer, buddy?), but there’s only so many options.

      My walk involves the wonderful intersection of Eastlake and Fuhrman, where the cars are most often squeezing left through well after the light has changed (there’s now a sign telling folks to look out for bicycles after I saw one of those squeezers nail a bicyclist there, had to yell at someone in the city to even consider putting that sign in), or straddling the pedestrian walk stripes while trying to look around the restaurant on the corner.

      Downtown I recall being likewise horrible, with turning cars ever aiming for pedestrians, though thankfully I haven’t needed to go down there for a few years now–what a raging car hell that was. Speaking of the U District, wasn’t there someone nailed recently at 45th? What a hellish place that is to walk, even when the cars aren’t hitting people, all ear-crushing noise and the vile stench. Then someone fires up a leaf-blower to ice the cake.

      It’s a wonder as many people walk and bicycle as they do, given the horrible conditions of the open air sewers that pass for our transportation network.

      1. Law Abider

        Your description is very poetic and dramatic. Basically what it sounds like to me is what it’s like to be a pedestrian in any major city.

        Should it be that way? No, but it is and probably won’t change in the near future, even with advances in transit and biking/pedestrian facilities. People will always drive and some of those people will always be oblivious as they’re in a hurry to get somewhere.

        That doesn’t mean it needs to be dangerous. A true city pedestrian has the brains and the wits to recognize and avoid a dangerous situation, even if you have the right-of-way.

        As for the less than idea intersections, where you have tons of drivers making turns, while looking only in one direction with a blind eye to pedestrians crossing from the other, make yourself known. Knock on windows. Let the drivers know that you and other people want to cross here. Some drivers may never change (I’m looking at you Eastsiders), but some may just not be used to dense city driving and a little reminder may be all that they need to change.

  12. james in the CD

    You’re take on the Times article in interesting Tom; I don’t agree where you are coming from, but I get it.

    I don’t own a car, but my significant other does – so I drive occasionally, and when I do, I deal with self involved pedestrians on a regular basis – a lot of them – you have to admit it is pretty irritating to be trying to make a left on green while some inconsiderate ass is updating their facebook status as they go through the crosswalk at a snails pace – only making it to the other side after the hand has quit flashing and went to a solid – don’t walk – you then have to go through the red as you have been in the intersection – but hey, that pedestrian shouldnt have to participate in this act – they don’t owe me anything.

    But more often, I am on a bike and on my bike, I have had multiple times when people on their phones cross the street at crosswalks and do not even make eye contact with me as they punch the key pad – they are so self involved they don’t feel they should have to negotiate space with anyone – can you not admit that is pretty weird.

    But the best is when some ass just walks out in front of your bike at a crosswalk with their headphones at a “don’t walk” – you yell, they cannot hear you – and you don’t know whether to go in front or behind them; this has happened to me a few times on my morning commute on Pike – and I have almost bit it because of the advents described in this sort of scenario.

    Ultimately – it is pretty frustrating to deal with anyone on a future phone – as they are not really involved in the act of movement with the collective – they are as the Times points out, zombies – going from point to point with little recollection,concern, or care for the people or places surrounding them.

    All this does not negate that fact that people in cars texting are just as lame and have greater capacity to harm individuals and property.

  13. […] were going to write a combative piece about how we should ban right turns on red, building off our walking safety story from […]

  14. Orv

    “The fact is, the vast majority of collisions between motor vehicles and people walking are the fault of the person driving.”

    I’m sure statistically that’s true, since pedestrians have the absolute right of way. Someone could dive headlong in front of my car against a solid red walk signal and if I hit them, I would legally be at fault. It’s no wonder people are so distracted when our laws absolve them of all responsibility for their own safety.

    1. merlin

      Drivers are rarely charged with a crime for injuring or even killing pedestrians.

  15. […] Nev. lawmaker moves to ban texting while walking, cites Seattle study | Q13 FOX News – Yes, because it’s the walkers in Nevada who are the problem (see our previous story on the study) […]

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