Wednesday, August 23, 2017

How Stamford and Honolulu Are Making Streets Less Safe

Intersection of Hoyt & Summer Stree in Stamford - Summer 2014. A pedestrian in the crosswalk was killed there shortly before I took this photo.
Motorists in Honolulu - and, sadly, in the city of Stamford - are being given a new tool in their utility belt of Blame Assignment.  

I'm talking about banning the use of cell phones while walking. "Distracted texting" or "distracted walking" as it is sometimes called. We've all probably seen the footage of a distracted pedestrian or two walking into an open manhole or the like and there are cases of a person distracted by a phone and walking into the path of a car - but the practice of banning the use of a cell phone while walking is not the way to make streets safer.

In fact, if I wanted to kill as many pedestrians or cyclists with motor vehicles as possible I'd push for such a law, and push hard.

From Summer 2014. Is the intersection any safer?
Here's why: the balance of power on the street is in the favor of cars to begin with. If I'm walking or biking and a car hits me at 40 miles an hour, chances are excellent I am going to the morgue. The driver - as long as he or she is "remaining at the scene and cooperating" - is going to Maaco. 

Power is also in the hands of the motorist because of the implicit bias in way too many news articles about cars hitting pedestrians. A few years ago, in an article for the Stamford Patch, I pointed out that almost every piece about a car hitting a pedestrian talked about whether or not the person struck was in a crosswalk - and that people want the answer to that question to assign blame to the pedestrian. 

Very, very soon, "Was he/she holding a cell phone?" will augment the old "Was he/she in the crosswalk?" question. Just another way to shift blame away from the motorist and toward the pedestrian. 

Here's my prediction: Streets in Stamford and Honolulu will not see fewer pedestrian deaths. They'll see more because it'll be all the easier for a driver to face little if any repercussions from striking someone. 

Do I think pedestrians and cyclists should take more ownership over their safety - following the rules of the road and looking both ways? Of course I do. But when I put one foot on the street to cross and the approaching driver is going too fast to stop that is a problem with the speed of the motorist - not whether or not I am holding a cell phone in my hand.

That is yet another important thing to remember: even if you follow the ordinance and cross with the phone in your hand - at your side and away from your eyes - that isn't going to matter if you are hit. The driver will be conscious and will be able to give his or her statement to the police that you were holding a cell phone which will be found at the scene. Because you - the unconscious, bleeding pedestrian - can't give your statement to the police that you weren't using the phone, the deck is stacked against you once again. 

It's also a bit unnerving to see a city in Connecticut essentially create an ordinance that chips away at a state law that says drivers must yield to pedestrians who are at a crosswalk. The no-cell-phones-while-walking-rule essentially turns that around. This is motorists - many of whom are also using their phones - saying: you stop what you are doing and you yield to us. 

If you agree and live in Stamford, politely call or email Stamford's Board of Representatives - especially John Zelinsky, an architect of this ordinance - and tell them not to enact this. Do not be rude in any way or use swear words. I am not kidding.  

I know I live in San Jose now, but I miss Stamford. I miss Lorca. I miss Rippowam Labs. I miss Exhale. I miss the art scene and I really want to go to Danger Gallery. I miss free plastic grocery bags. I miss being in the same time zone as 98% of my family. I miss living close to Indian, Greek and Mexican restaurants that deliver. I miss rappelling Santa.*

What I don't miss is the 1970s-style pro-car bias that clings to some people like a disease in the Constitution State. Every road user matters and I have zero interest in telling someone that their much-loved wife, husband, sister, brother, dad, mom or friend isn't coming home because, well, we want drivers to get to where they are going one light faster. 

The aftermath of a bike crashing into a car never, ever looks like this.

By the way, Stamford: I know there is a mayor's race coming up - and friends who still live there know it too. If you are running for mayor (or, running for re-election) I have four words: please check your inbox. Cycling with Candidates is returning. More on this in a few days. 

Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.

*In Stamford, that is A Thing - and it is a wonderful Thing. Check out the Stamford Advocate coverage


  1. Especially here in Silicon Valley, the number of people I see staring at their phones as they step into the street is unbelievable. I've actually seen pedestrians walk into a STOPPED car because they couldn't be bother to look away from their phones for a few seconds.

    I believe you're correct in your thinking that it will be the new excuse for why a person in a car isn't responsible for hitting a person walking.
    But jeez....people really need to take some responsibility for their own safety. Put the phone down when you walk across the street or you won't see the person driving while on their phone careen into you.

    1. I like what they have in London: on the ground where the crosswalk meets the curb the world "LOOK" is painted in large letters.