Crosswalk carnage: Why do cops still ignore drivers who won't yield?

Once again, Seattle Police seem to be targeting jaywalkers and ignoring crosswalk-charging drivers, while collision numbers climb.

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Chicago has worked on advanced pedestrian safety measures, like these zigzag markings to alert drivers.

Once again, Seattle Police seem to be targeting jaywalkers and ignoring crosswalk-charging drivers, while collision numbers climb.

The other night I was pedaling up to the intersection of Virginia Street and Boren Avenue, heading west, with bike light and safety vest blazing. A police officer was stopped at the light, coming eastbound on Virginia; I figured his presence would encourage good behavior in the other drivers. Whoops. I started slowly into the marked crosswalk, then stopped while two cars whizzed past. Seeing a break, I headed across. Another car wheeled off Denny onto Boren and straight in my path. I pivoted and waved madly, and it slammed to a stop a foot or two from my front wheel and 10 feet from the cop. As I reached the far curb, he rolled down his passenger window, leaned over, and told me, “You’re lucky.”

“Lucky?” I replied. “That was a crosswalk!”

“Yeah, he was completely at fault,” the officer said, and drove off before I could ask, “So why didn’t you bust him?”

Urban crosswalks are a crossroads, a place where two very different cultures — automobile and pedestrian/bicyclist — meet or, all too often, collide. Courtesy and common sense should mediate these encounters as they do so many others, but they’re too often trumped by the inertia and empathy-sapping isolation that come with driving. The relationship between a two-ton, 300-horsepower chariot and 150-pound pedestrian is just too unequal to be self-regulating. And so we need rules (rights of way) and authorities (police) to enforce them.

For years, however — for all I know, since the days of actual chariots — pedestrian advocates and bicycling boosters have complained about the unfairness of enforcement at the human/auto frontier, at the way police, afflicted with what Cascade Bicycle Club campaigner David Hiller has called “a windshield perspective on the world,” tend to see crossing accidents and pedestrian injuries as resulting from pedestrian, not driver, misbehavior. That’s borne out in the numbers; historically, the Seattle Police Department has ticketed about six times as many pedestrians for jaywalking as it has drivers for failing to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. (A “crosswalk” is just about any intersection, whether marked or not, and pedestrians, including cyclists acting as pedestrians, have the right of way unless signals or signs say otherwise.)

Talk about blaming the victim: culpability for accidents stacks up in just the opposite way. According to city data, drivers’ inattention, failure to yield, and disregard for lights were the primary causes of about 1,200 pedestrian collisions from 2007 through 2010. Pedestrians failing to yield and ignoring lights caused about 200. Another 200 were ascribed to pedestrian “failure to use crosswalk” — but crossing midblock is actually legal, as long as there are no lights at the corners and the crossers yield to vehicles.

The result: More than two-thirds of Seattleite pedestrians killed or fatally injured by vehicles were where they were supposed to be, in crosswalks or even on sidewalks. Just 3 to 4 percent of the people involved in collisions are pedestrians, but 36 percent of those killed or seriously injured are. By contrast, drivers are by definition involved in 100 percent of collisions but compose just 42 percent of the victims. Pardon my saying so, but what would Jesus drive? He’d walk, because then he’d have a chance to die for somebody else’s sins.

Numbers like those, and the advocates’ complaints, prompted the city to declare 2007 the “Year of the Pedestrian” and pedestrian safety and walkability top priorities. The Nickels administration got off on the wrong foot by trying to scare walkers straight with a brochure announcing “the Seattle Police Department enforces pedestrian laws.” By 2009, however, the police seemed to have gotten the message; they ticketed only three times as many jaywalkers as they did drivers who didn’t yield. Many road-design changes instituted in recent years have also helped making crossing safer: road diets (reducing four lanes to three), bus bulbs, traffic circles. And police undertook emphasis patrols against unyielding drivers; I actually saw a cruiser waiting to pick motorists off as they zipped through the crosswalk in front of the Uptown Cinema. (When I asked Seattle Police for comment for this story, the only response I received was that the department had done a couple more crosswalk emphasis patrols around Thanksgiving.)

It seems such efforts, plus (maybe) driver education and (certainly) the informal education afforded by irate pedestrians thumping passing roofs and trunks, have had some effect. More — though far from all — drivers seem to know what crosswalks are, and even to stop at them.

But Seattle’s police have reverted to their old ways — to that familiar 6:1 ratio. In 2010 they issued 1,570 jaywalking tickets, up from 1,274 in 2009, and just 197 failure-to-yield citations, down from 406.

If that approach reduced accidents, it would make more sense. But it didn’t. According to the Seattle Department of Transportation, the number of collisions with pedestrians rose 10 percent in 2010, to 529, even as the total number of collisions fell 11 percent, reflecting a decade-long pattern of decline. In 421 of those pedestrian collisions, the drivers failed to yield in crosswalks.

The city is still trying to get it right. This fall it’s convened a series of Road Safety Summit meetings to gather ideas and preferences for how to improve same; the last session was scheduled for last night (Monday, Dec. 12). The pedestrian advocates Feet First and the Cascade Bicycle Club two weeks ago held their own “mini-summit” and compiled a long list of suggestions (see right). One simple idea that might save lives: make pedestrian and cyclist safety part of the state driving test. Or better yet, require that drivers first use bicycles as transportation.

Perhaps they should also require special courses for the police who are supposed to enforce those rules. Years ago, in broad daylight on Madison Avenue around East 23rd Street, I saw two young officers sail right in front of a woman about to step into a marked crosswalk with three young children in tow. I caught up, flagged them down, signaled them to roll down the window, and gave them a lecture. A citizen’s gotta do what a citizen’s gotta do. To their credit, they were abashed and apologetic.

Recently, I flagged down another police car that came barreling at me as I crossed Rainier Avenue at night. “Don’t you know that’s a crosswalk, and the pedestrian has the right of way?” I asked.

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean you have to be out in it!” that officer snarled, and roared away.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.