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Taking steps to keep pedestrians safe

Crime, Law and Justice

I expected to hear from pedestrians, criticizing careless drivers and sharing tales of near-tragedies after my column last week.

I had written about a mother's tribute to her teenage son, whose death while crossing a busy street launched her on a mission to battle distracted driving.

But most of the readers I heard from took a different tack:

Drivers aren't the only or even primary problem. Pedestrians are responsible for their own safety — and I'd missed a chance to educate them about the stupid things they do.

"Many, if not most, of the pedestrians and bicyclists that get hit (and often die) are the cause of their own demise," wrote reader Kurt Smith. "They are not obeying the laws, and/or not paying attention."

Smith ought to know; he's a traffic cop. A sergeant in the LAPD's Valley Traffic Division, he deals "with the aftermath of poor choices" made by people who are struck while walking, running and riding bikes.

They cross mid-block, in poorly lit areas, on dark nights, wearing clothes that make them hard to see. They bike against traffic and don't stop for red lights. They have music blaring through the headphones that cover their ears. They head into the street without scanning the traffic, eyes glued to their cellphones.

They underestimate the danger and miscalculate the cost. "Pedestrians and bicyclists don't seem to realize that they are going to lose in any situation involving them and a vehicle," Smith warned.

The law may be on the pedestrian's side. But "self-preservation — being wary and aware — is the best method for reducing injury and death," he said.

::

I cringed as I clicked through readers' emails chronicling pedestrian errors. I like to think I'm a careful walker, but some of those misdeeds they listed I've made myself in reckless moments:

Jaywalking. Ignoring the flashing hand and the "Don't Walk" sign. Not looking both ways before stepping off the curb. Sauntering through the crosswalks on busy boulevards.

"I know that there are plenty of inconsiderate drivers, but I see just as many inconsiderate pedestrians that need to take some personal responsibility for their own safety," wrote Wayne Pedersen.

His drive along busy Foothill Boulevard resembles a dangerous game of chicken, with pedestrians oblivious to stoplights, crosswalks and even corners, he said. "Not a month goes by that I do not have a close call, [almost] hitting someone."

Even some who travel by foot lamented the scofflaws.

Emmett Rahl of Long Beach has been mocked by running buddies while he waited out a stoplight. He's also had friends hit by cars when they misjudged the vehicles' speed as they darted through an intersection.

"As a runner," he wrote, "I need to set a good example in obeying the laws of the road — and also operate under the understanding that I can take nothing for granted when it comes to my own safety."

::

Talking about the responsibility of pedestrians is trickier than championing their rights. No one wants to blame the victim when a traffic accident ends a pedestrian's life.

But with deaths rising and distractions multiplying, that's a conversation we really ought to have.

We can blame smartphones and GPS devices for inattentive drivers, but pedestrians use those too. That's a bad combination when both are distracted. In a clash of those two forces, we know who stands to lose.

Traffic safety experts recognize the hazards that pedestrians face. The fixes they propose tend to focus on two solutions: creating pedestrian-friendly streets and curtailing distracted driving by limiting our use of technological gadgets.

Those are both good long-term projects; powerful and important. But the mindset of pedestrians has to change too.

We have to focus less on rights and more on responsibilities.

The bottom line is you can't know what's going on inside the head of the person behind the wheel. Don't assume the driver will wait at the crosswalk or stop when the light turns red. Don't assume the person is sober, rational, paying attention or can see very well.

My father had one bit of advice he would pass along when he taught his children to drive: Presume that all drivers on the road are idiots and protect yourself from them.

Here's a corollary, from reader Mark Miller, for pedestrians: "Educate a pedestrian that even though they have the right of way, they will always lose to 2,000 pounds of steel."

sandy.banks@latimes.com.

@SandyBanksLAT

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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