Walk Don’t Walk

To prevent killing pedestrians, does it sometimes make more sense to break the law than obey it?

Walk Don’t Walk
Photo Illustration by Randall Nelson
Will the driver in the red car stop, or won’t he? Everything hangs in the balance.

I am an outlaw. Almost every day a situation arises that forces me to violate a well-known, well-publicized law that, in my humble estimation, makes absolutely no sense. I ignore Minnesota Crosswalk Statute 169.21 not because I am a hotheaded renegade who hates the nanny state, or because I am some kind of righteous crusader fighting an unjust cause; I ignore the law because if I followed it, someone could get killed.

This is the situation: You are driving down a four-lane road—Lake Street, University Avenue, or Snelling Avenue, say. You see a pedestrian who wants to cross the street at an intersection without a stoplight. The law says you are supposed to stop and let the pedestrian cross. You stop. But, as the pedestrian starts to cross, you see a car coming up behind you in the other lane. Will that driver stop, too? You hold your breath. The other car whizzes by, missing the pedestrian by inches.

The next time you encounter this situation, do you stop, knowing you might be luring an unsuspecting pedestrian to his or her doom? Or do you conclude that, since other drivers can’t be trusted to stop as well, it’s safer for everyone to just ignore the law and keep on going?

After experiencing several frighteningly close calls by doing the “right” thing and stopping, I now choose the latter course. I no longer stop. And if I am on foot, I prefer that cars not stop for me.

PLEASE UNDERSTAND: Not stopping for pedestrians when I should isn’t easy for me. It goes against every instinct I have as a driver. I grew up in California, in a hippie-ish coastal town where cars came to a screeching halt anytime a pedestrian got within spitting distance of a curb. In the driving culture there, pedestrians always had the right of way, and it was every driver’s responsibility to make sure that people on foot weren’t endangered or inconvenienced by people in cars. It was the law, sure—but, more important, harmony between pedestrians, bicyclists, and motor vehicles was also a bedrock credo of the culture. Not stopping for pedestrians violated a strong social code reinforced by hundreds of small pedestrian-friendly kindnesses perpetuated every day.

Minnesota is different. Every year, the state spends a great deal of time and money informing the public about the nuances of Minnesota’s pedestrian crosswalk law, particularly the part about every intersection being a crosswalk, whether it’s marked or not. Each spring, green-and-white pylons sprout like dandelions out of the asphalt at crosswalks all over the metro, bearing the cheerfully threatening message “Stop for [the little cartoon walking guy]. It’s the law.”

Last October, alarmed by a rise in pedestrian fatalities at a time when every other type of traffic fatality is on the decline, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, bolstered by a federal grant, mounted the state’s first pedestrian-safety campaign in 15 years. Called Share the Road, the campaign included ads on billboards, buses, and in other public spaces, and got its share of media attention.

The core message of Share the Road was that, according to several studies, drivers are at fault only 50 percent of the time when cars hit people; the other half of the time, it’s the pedestrian’s fault. “Pedestrians can’t do much to improve a driver’s habits, just like drivers can’t do anything about pedestrian behaviors,” cautions the Share the Road website dot.state.mn.us/sharetheroad. “We all must take responsibility to follow the law, pay attention and share the road.”

It sounds easy. But in practice, those two sentences encompass a frustratingly vast and complex web of problems and paradoxes that the state spends millions trying to counteract. Since 2003, Minnesota has been conducting a rather revolutionary social experiment in public safety through its Toward Zero Deaths program, a statewide, interdisciplinary approach to highway safety that isn’t aimed simply at reducing traffic fatalities and injuries; its ultimate goal is to transform the entire “safety culture” of Minnesota through a coordinated approach to the so-called “4 E’s”: education, engineering, enforcement, and emergency response services.

The pie-in-the-sky goal of Toward Zero Deaths is to reduce traffic fatalities and injuries to zero. The more realistic immediate goal is to have fewer than 350 fatalities and 850 serious injuries per year on Minnesota roads by 2014. Since Toward Zero Deaths began there’s been a 44 percent drop in the number of traffic fatalities overall (368 in 2011, 378 in 2012), but despite the state’s best efforts, the number of pedestrians hurt or killed by automobiles has remained stubbornly constant: 41 in 2009, 36 in 2010, 40 in 2011, and 38 in 2012. “Other types of fatalities have seen a steady decline, but pedestrian deaths have stayed roughly the same,” confirms Fay Simer, coordinator of the Share the Road program. “That’s why pedestrian safety has moved up the priority list.”

The unofficial pedestrian death toll for 2012 was 38, but that number will likely rise once all the state’s traffic stats are analyzed. Many of these deaths made headlines. In September, French foreign-exchange student Cléo Thiberge was killed crossing Grand Avenue in St. Paul, two days after arriving in this country to attend Macalester College. In July, an 85-year-old nun, Sister Mary Beneva Schulte, was hit by a truck while crossing Cretin Avenue in St. Paul. In November, a 17-year-old girl was hit by a car while she was crossing Highway 10 in Anoka, the fourth such incident on that notoriously dangerous stretch of road last year. And, of course, the infamous Amy Senser trial raised the question of whether it is possible to hit a human being with your car and not even know it.