Readers of Bill Dawers’ City Talk column in yesterday’s Savannah Morning News might presume that he wrote about two completely different issues under two separate headings. I’d argue the topics are more closely related than is immediately apparent.
First, Dawers’ accurately describes the recently reduced jaywalking fines for what they are: a distraction from the main issue. Yes, the original fines were exorbitant, but the idea that the crackdown is an effective public safety measure remains unchallenged by almost everyone in the local media (except Dawers) and even by citizens who organized a Facebook group and a petition drive.
Will an enforcement campaign, directed almost entirely against pedestrians, reduce injuries and fatalities? Dawers knows the crackdown is unlikely to produce that result because it ignores a critical point:
“The core problem of drivers who are ignorant of the law and who drive recklessly through downtown will not be addressed by going after jaywalkers who are making perfectly safe decisions for themselves.”
Next, Dawers tackles another popular local legend, which holds that pedestrians routinely leap out of azalea bushes and fling themselves into the paths of innocent motorists.
“Never once have I had a pedestrian step in front of me in a way that forced me to slam on my brakes. Tap them? Sure. It’s been mildly annoying a few times, but hardly hazardous. For the most part, I’d say that drivers who routinely complain about having to make drastic maneuvers are going too fast, not paying attention to conditions in front of them, or simply exaggerating the circumstances.”
This reminds me of a recent item in the Savannah Morning News’ Vox Populi comment section, in which a reader reported being “so tired of rude, arrogant and selfish pedestrians deliberately stepping in front of my vehicle.” Another claimed the presence of pedestrians made Oglethorpe Avenue “one of the scarier streets in Savannah to drive down” and complained about the indignity of having to “drive below the speed limit.”
As Dawers mentioned in a previous column, the sense of entitlement held by these drivers has no doubt been reinforced by the jaywalking crackdown. At the same time, motorists are free to impede pedestrian traffic — not for just moments — but hours or days at a time without fear of police intervention. On Saturday I made the 2.5 mile trip from my home to my office and counted five cars parked on or otherwise blocking sidewalks or crosswalks along the way.
While having to walk around a car parked on a sidewalk or in a crosswalk may be a minor inconvenience for pedestrians (perhaps on par with a motorist having to tap the brakes to allow a pedestrian to cross the street) for citizens with mobility or visual impairments, it’s a different story. Motorists create dangerous situations and impassible obstacles when they choose to park where people need to walk.
And it’s the need to walk that ties together the two topics of Dawers’ column this week. He leads with an appreciation of the star of the Savannah-based reality TV show, “Ruby,” noting she is an “inspirational figure” for many people struggling with “the ups and downs of dieting.” A TIME magazine story from this week entitled “Why are Southerners so Fat?” acknowledges the role of deep-fried diets, but also points to physical inactivity, due to poor infrastructure, as a cause. The story’s author notes that many Southern states have “a surprising lack of sidewalks” and this discourages “even the most eager pedestrians.” Add insufficient or nonexistent public transportation and the result is “for most people, the best way to get around is by car.”
Here in Savannah (or at least the parts of town developed before World War II) we are lucky to have plenty of sidewalks. Still, by vilifying pedestrians and failing to hold motorists accountable, we have come up with new ways to discourage “even the most eager pedestrians.” Continuing down this road could bring serious public safety and public health consequences. At the very least, it will convince could people that “the best way to get around is by car,” even when it isn’t.