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.

Uncontrolled crosswalks are by definition places where cars and people cross paths with nothing between them and disaster except some mutual alertness, a little eye contact, and a healthy dose of common sense. Common sense breaks down, however, when not everyone acts the same way in certain situations. I stop for pedestrians on a four-lane road if there is no other traffic, but I do not stop for them if there is danger posed by other cars, particularly those behind me. I would stop, though, if I believed my fellow motorists would do the same. Unfortunately, I currently believe that many of my fellow Minnesotans can’t be trusted. The big question, then—the one with which our society is constantly struggling—is how to change the thinking and instincts of the driver who doesn’t stop?

Culturally speaking, the challenge of getting inside renegade drivers’ heads and planting a message strong enough to persuade them to change their behavior is daunting. The state can bombard people all day with traffic signs, billboards, PSAs, statistics, and cautionary news stories, but if these people are not inclined to stop, they won’t.

Everyone knows they should buckle their seat belt while driving, for instance—and 94 percent of us do it. But 6 percent don’t. Interestingly, if you look at crash-fatality statistics, fully half of all traffic deaths occur because the driver wasn’t wearing a seat belt. In other words, that tiny 6 percent subset of free thinkers accounts for 50 percent of all traffic deaths. So, to dramatically reduce traffic deaths, all the state has to do is persuade a tiny percentage of people to take a more active interest in their own survival.

But if there are people out there who don’t care about their own survival, what are the chances that some well-intentioned “education” is going to persuade them to care about other people’s lives? Most people obey traffic laws, more or less, but the jerks who don’t are legion. They speed, drive drunk, ignore stop signs, run red lights, whiz up and down residential streets and alleys, refuse to signal, cut you off (then flip you off), blast their brights at night, make manic left turns in front of oncoming traffic, honk in traffic jams, and basically behave as if their time and priorities are more important than everyone else’s. You know them. You hate them. You hate them even if you are one of them on occasion.

Likewise, pedestrians also do stupid and illegal things all the time. They sprint to beat the “Don’t Walk” sign, run Frogger-style through traffic, walk on the wrong side of the road, stare at their phones, and stroll across the street so slowly it’s as if they are daring cars to hit them.

The only real deterrents to such behavior are the mysterious inner workings of the offender’s own conscience and, in the case of illegal activity, the threat of a ticket or jail time. Stricter laws might deter some people, but the current ones seem plenty strict. The penalty for first-time violators is a $700 fine and up to 90 days in jail, or both. Subsequent violations are gross misdemeanors, with a $3,000 fine and up to a year in prison, or both. Most people don’t know these numbers, however, so their deterrent value is questionable.

Driver education, public relations campaigns, school safety programs, and community organizing are great, but we already do all that—and people still drive stupidly.

Or maybe it’s just the culture. After all, we live in a push-me-pull-you world of competing, contradictory priorities. New automobiles come packed with LCD screens, GPS systems, Bluetooth phones, acres of buttons, a lovely female voice laced with British inflections, and a plethora of other enticing features, all of which require drivers to divert some part of their attention away from the road. Those same vehicles have more safety features than ever—rear-view backup cameras, computer-assisted cruise control, sensors that detect potential crash dangers—and the people who buy them are part of the most safety-obsessed generation of adults in human history.

Minnesota itself is one of the most safety-conscious states in the country as well, but we embrace change reluctantly. People here didn’t always recycle, reuse shopping bags, buy pretzel-shaped light bulbs, or refrain from smoking inside, but they do now, and somewhere in that neurotic fog of cognitive dissonance shines a tiny ray of hope. “Changing the culture is a slow process. It means changing your own personal values, taking personal responsibility for obeying the laws, and teaching your kids to do the same,” says MnDOT’s Sue Groth. “We’ve had great success with drunken driving, seat belts, and bicycle helmets, so I think it can be done with pedestrians and crosswalk safety.”

I, for one, certainly hope so. But until all those other idiots on the road start doing their part, I’m not sure I can stomach doing mine.