Falling from on high

I’ve written before about Belmont, Massachusetts’ attempts to punish drivers on Lexington Street by posting nuisance stop signs, a car-eating speed table, and an illegal speed trap. That street is in local news recently after an accident on the speed table killed a pedestrian. None of the traffic obstruction measures made a difference because they don’t address the real problem.

A van was waiting at a stop sign. According to one report, a pedestrian waved the driver to go, the driver turned right, and the van hit a second pedestrian who was not expecting the driver to go. An ordinary low-speed urban accident of the kind nobody seems to care about.

If you read progressive blogs you’ll hear we need to take speeders’ money. Read articles about the accident and you’ll find resident complaints about speeders. There is a cultural bias towards discussing speed rather than safety.

Collisions at well under the speed limit are much more common and cause more pedestrian and bicyclist deaths in the Boston area than high speed drivers on city streets. The vehicle is often large with poor visibility from the driver’s seat.

This time you can blame the driver for not looking right and the surviving pedestrian for waving him on. Other times it’s a bicyclist who passes a right-turning truck on the right, a driver backing up, or a pedestrian crossing against the light.

We train pedestrians to cross against lights. I used to live down the street from the accident site. Pedestrians in the Waverley area are expected to learn which pushbuttons don’t work or take a ridiculous amount of time to work. A walk light was broken last winter and not repaired. It was illegal to cross the low-volume side street where I lived because there were crosswalks at the ends of the street. You’re not allowed to cross within 300 feet of a marked crosswalk, safe or not. Sometimes the law is stupid and sometimes it isn’t. You’re expected to know which is which.

In another city I was walking along a sidewalk and waited for a don’t walk signal at a driveway. A nearby police officer told me it was OK to cross. I knew it wasn’t. A car coming the other way had tripped the sensor to get a left turn arrow across my path. A woman in Boston made a mistake like that and got run over by a semi. If you have to understand traffic signal programming to know if the signal is bluffing, it isn’t working.

We also train drivers not to look for pedestrians. If you put a speed bump in my path you’re telling me to look at the speed bump to manage my collision speed and angle. That takes mental energy that used to go into looking for who or what might enter the street. Real hazards are more important than potential hazards.

Chemical engineer Trevor Kletz wrote extensively on plant safety. He retold a story of a worker who failed to wear safety goggles and got acid in his eyes. His supervisors said workers should always wear goggles even for the safest tasks, but they didn’t enforce the rule. It was understood to be for the benefit of managers rather than eyeballs. Except that one time. We all know the story of the boy who cried wolf. Kletz blamed management.

He also had a more general observation. When people open up their checkbooks they want to pay for complexity, not simplicity.

When a pedestrian is killed the death goes into a database. When that database gets consulted for policy decisions the people who read it think “pedestrian death, we need to reduce speed” and “turning accident, we need more stop signs.”

How about “more accidents, we need to stop confusing people”? There’s no money in that or for that.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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