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.

If everyone followed the rules and did what they were supposed to, of course, some of those people would still be alive. The problem is that society’s task isn’t just convincing everyone to follow the rules; the larger challenge is in finding ways to change deeply ingrained driving behaviors that have, for better or worse, become part of our driving DNA.

In Minnesota, these behaviors include neglecting to signal when changing lanes, the inability to properly zipper merge, and a compulsion to speed up when other drivers are trying to pass. Often people aren’t consciously aware of these habits and inclinations; they’re just things people do, because they’re part of Minnesota driving culture.

Precisely why Minnesotans behave the way they do behind the wheel is as much a matter of conjecture as consternation. It’s somehow tied to the state’s rural roots, Midwestern sensibilities, weather rituals, and the various habits and tics parents unwittingly pass on to their children—but exactly how is difficult to determine. Minnesota drivers have a complicated relationship with pedestrians as well, in that they don’t quite know what to do with them.

“I don’t know why Minnesota drivers don’t stop for pedestrians as often as they should,” says Nathan Bowie, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. “A lot of factors feed into it, I think. People are in a hurry to get home. They’re distracted. They’re talking on the phone. They’re thinking about themselves. For whatever reason, they’re just not paying attention.”

And yet, the law itself couldn’t be clearer: Automobiles are required to stop for pedestrians at all intersections, whether there’s a stoplight or not, and whether the intersection is marked or not. No exceptions.

No public official is going to concede that it’s OK to ignore the pedestrian crosswalk law, even when it feels safer to do so. But when I described the scenario that turns me into a lawbreaker, many officials and traffic engineers interviewed for this story sympathized, and several conceded that they too have felt that familiar twinge of fear at similar crosswalks.

“It’s one of the most dangerous situations we talk about,” admits Share the Road’s Fay Simer.

“I’ve thought about it, but I do stop,” says Sue Groth, Minnesota’s head traffic engineer. “I slow down way ahead to let the pedestrian know I see them and that I’m stopping—and hope other cars see that I’m stopping as well. I do think everyone should stop.”

Bowie is a little more charitable toward pedestrian-oblivious drivers: “I think some people get caught off-guard, because maybe they’re driving a little too fast and see the pedestrian too late and don’t want to slam on their brakes and get hit by the car behind them.”