Last week was a deadly week for pedestrians in the Puget Sound. A 77-year-old woman from Seattle died in the early hours of Monday morning while crossing a Bellevue street. She was hit by two drivers. Then on Thursday night, Linda Kulich, a 56-year-old woman from Bothell, also died crossing a street. She was on her way home when she was hit by three drivers late that evening. Both stories of these women’s deaths are tragic ones, but they’re all too common for pedestrians and cyclists. But perhaps the bigger tragedy here is that the media and police described these incidents almost as if they were the fault of the victims.
Tom over at Seattle Bike Blog pushed back against a KING 5 tweet that described Linda Kulich as not crossing in a crosswalk. He nailed it when he posted a map of showing the path on Bothell-Everett Highway that Linda Kulich would have to walk in order to use a marked crosswalk. It was over a a quarter-mile away in either direction.
— Seattle Bike Blog (@seabikeblog) December 6, 2014
Putting the blame on pedestrians
The media and police were very vocal in their pedestrian blaming. KIRO 7 described the story of the Bellevue victim’s this way:
Police said the victim is a 77-year-old Seattle woman. It is not yet known if she was in the crosswalk, but she was wearing dark clothing when she was hit and dragged by a Jeep shortly after 6 a.m.
Q13 quoted a Bellevue police officer from the same case in tasteless fashion:
“This crash is a good reminder for people to wear visible clothing when they are out walking. Bright clothes make you more visible to motorists, and reduce the chance of a crash”, said Lt. Marcia Harnden with the Bellevue Police Department.
According to Washington State Patrol, the pedestrian was illegally crossing the highway when she was hit by three separate vehicles.
Of the major local media, it was only KOMO TV that wrote the most evenhanded story on the death Linda Kulich.
The facts matter
The Seattle woman who died was struck at a major Bellevue intersection (NE 38th Street and 150th Avenue NE). Her body was drug more than a dozen feet before being struck by another vehicle. The driver who initially hit her in the crosswalk was an 18-year-old male in a Jeep. He couldn’t see her, evidently because he was too impatient to defrost his windshield and didn’t bother to look right. The media and police, however, would have you know that the vicitim was wearing dark clothing, as if somehow that matters.
Linda Kulich, the Bothell woman who died, crossed the street at 18600 block of NE Bothell Way (aka Bothell-Everett Highway). She was struck by a car in the northbound lane of the street. Two other drivers managed to also run over her body. Police would have you know that she didn’t cross at a cross walk. They’ll even tell you she did it illegally. But what they don’t tell you is that she likely did it legally at an unmarked crossing. This stretch of Bothell-Everett Highway is low speed and incredibly permeable for pedestrians. It’s possible she could have just got off a bus. And as Tom noted, that stretch of Bothell-Everett Highway would require a pedestrian to walk a quarter-mile in either direction just to reach a marked crosswalk.
Who’s really to blame
As we can see from the above, reporting by the media and commentary by police on these tragedies is offensive at best. Both have an obligation to be fair and truthful in their assessment of these incidents, yet they continue to perpetuate a cultural meme that is biased against pedestrians (and cyclists). The truth, however, is that pedestrian deaths are the result of an unholy combination in poor infrastructure design and inattentive driving behaviors.
When streets are designed to discourage pedestrians from crossing them, it’s little wonder that a pedestrian would cross at unsafe or unmarked locations. By the same token, this only creates a sense of entitlement for drivers who only think that they must pay attention at marked locations. Why yield to a pedestrian if they’re just trying to scurry across the middle of the street? It’s not just crosswalks and intersections though. Traffic engineers have stacked the decks against pedestrians in the interest of moving the most amount vehicles in the shortest span of time possible. Road networks have gradually been transformed to include things like:
- Wide streets to accommodate more lanes of traffic;
- Raising speed limits to match the design capabilities; and
- Making highly complex intersections to manage a multitude of intricate traffic movements.
The bodies of pedestrians are fragile things. They don’t compare to the structural integrity of a motor vehicle. A hunk of metal is always a force to be reckoned with when it contains a combination of high velocity and significant weight. The human body is easily crushed and dismembered when faced with collision. It’s for this reason that laws are in place to oblige drivers to give the maximum possible regard to pedestrians (and cyclists) when operating within the same right-of-way. We know that motorists bare the burden of constant obstacles throughout their journeys from all modes, and that demands constant vigilance. And, it’s for this reason that we license and train drivers in the hopes that they will be law abiding and safe drivers.
However, the 30,000+ annual road deaths (and millions more who are maimed and injured — no, that’s not an exaggeration) in the US are proof that we are failing badly at creating both safe infrastructure and safe drivers. And because of that, it demands serious action.
In a previous article, I called for a Vision Zero plan in Seattle; a plan to end the deaths of pedestrians and cyclists alike. But, it isn’t just Seattle that needs to commit to policies that can implement a Vision Zero plan; communities across the Puget Sound have an obligation to make streets safer for all pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers. It seems that a reasonable start in this conversation is to stop blaming pedestrians and start to look at how we develop public campaigns, realign our streets, better educate drivers, and reduce speed limits.
UPDATE: It was brought to our attention that the Bothell incident took place at the 18400 block of Bothell-Everett Highway, just north of Bothell in Unincorporated Snohomish County. This section is a wide, high speed section of the highway. We apologize for the error.