I really didn’t want to write about this again, but it looks like the Savannah Chatham Metropolitan Police Department is casting a June 19 car vs. pedestrian crash as vindication of its unpopular crackdown on jaywalking, which was launched last month. With a headline that’s unusually snarky for a police department communication, “Still Think We’re Being too Strict?”, the press release reports the injury of a pedestrian who “was not in a crosswalk at the time of the incident” and promises, “once released from the hospital, the pedestrian will be cited for jaywalking.
I have no problem with traffic crashes being used as cautionary tales to educate the public. However, I’ve heard from some folks who think the police are using this as a “gotcha moment” to challenge criticism of the jaywalking crackdown.
And couldn’t this latest car vs. pedestrian crash just as easily be worked the opposite way? Instead of proving the need for a crackdown, couldn’t it just as easily be spun as evidence that the crackdown hasn’t worked? After all, the police department’s well-publicized and enthusiastically executed crackdown on pedestrians didn’t prevent this incident. In fact, the latest crash would seem offer evidence that citing pedestrians for even the slightest infraction does not generally improve public safety (which is the conclusion of every item of research on the topic I’ve been able to find). Does it also explain why law enforcement agencies that undertake similar enforcement campaigns eventually abandon them?
Please understand that I do not wish to vilify the police nor do I disagree with the enforcement of city ordinances. I imagine the police felt compelled to do something after a foreign dignitary was killed in a downtown crosswalk, generating international attention. Unfortunately, the response has burned through police staff hours, pedestrians’ wallets and public goodwill for the department.
Meanwhile, the opposition to the jaywalking crackdown has turned out to be a pretty big tent, attracting not only those who question the effectiveness of the practice and the potential damage done to the city’s reputation as a walkable destination, but also those who have used it as a base from which to attack parking enforcement, which is beneficial to pedestrians (and something we need more of, not less). Others see the crackdown as a conspiracy to boost city government revenues. Some even view it as a test case for advancing libertarian political ideologies.
Now into the fray, I’m afraid, comes a third group comprised of motorists, who think the pedestrian’s sole role is to stay out of the way — even in environments that were designed for pedestrians. You might call it a “a gradual shifting in the balance of responsibility for safety onto the pedestrian” kicked into overdrive and it’s something Bill Dawers predicted some time ago:
“I fear that this recent high-profile campaign targeting pedestrians only reinforced many drivers’ misplaced sense of entitlement on downtown streets.”
When enforcement efforts are aimed almost exclusively at people on foot, it conveys the idea that pedestrians belong at the bottom of the urban mobility food chain. I detect many people are responding to this as references to “idiot pedestrians” and similarly derogatory terms seem to be on the uptick in both online and in-person conversations locally.
All this has distracted attention from the questions we really ought to be asking as a community: What are the best practice models for reducing injuries and deaths and how can we implement them here? Here’s hoping we can take a deep breath, develop sensible strategies for addressing the problem and support the police and other agencies as they work to make Savannah’s streets safer.
Illustration from “Jaywalking and the Invention of the Motor Age Street,” by Peter Norton.