Not seeing the light on pedestrian safety

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Earlier this week, I ranted on Twitter about a poster I spotted on the TTC. The poster, showing a pedestrian crossing a downtown street, is one of a series of posters aimed at pedestrians, all with the tag “Stay Focused. Stay Safe.” They are co-produced by the TTC and the City of Toronto.

The poster, as seen above, shows a blurry image of a pedestrian crossing the street, wearing a backpack and a dark jacket. But it shows that pedestrian crossing legally and safely at one of the safest intersections in Toronto – Yonge and Dundas. We see cars and a streetcar waiting at the light in the background. There’s nothing wrong with this picture. What part of “stay focused” does clothing come in, anyway?

(Some of the responses to my rant were hilarious, like the woman who compared walking downtown wearing dark clothing with hiking in rural B.C. and not being prepared for cougar attacks.)

With the new school year and with the shorter days, it isn’t a bad time to be reminding all road users about how to stay safe. Other posters remind TTC passengers to cross at designated crosswalks and to pay attention when crossing the street, rather than focusing on their smartphones. While crossing many streets midblock isn’t itself dangerous – as long as one crosses a quiet street with caution it’s usually quite safe – the advice given in the poster above bothers me. It indirectly blames pedestrians for the clothes they wear.

Most fall and winter clothes, especially jackets, are dark – black, navy blue, dark grey, etc. Instead of blaming pedestrians, should we be blaming clothing retailers? Should we be requiring all pedestrians to wear high-visibility clothing, and be equipped with bright flashing lights? Or as David Hains pointed out in Torontoist, why aren’t cars required to be brightly coloured as to be seen better by pedestrians?

In Spacing, fellow Walk Toronto co-founder Dylan Reid wrote about, and debunked some common myths about pedestrian collisions. The vast majority of pedestrians in Toronto – 67% – hit by motorists had the right-of-way, such as with a walk signal at a traffic light or in a marked crosswalk. Only in 19% of collisions did injured pedestrians not have the right of way. And downtown, where there is a higher volume of pedestrians, there’s a safety in numbers; it’s on busy suburban arterials where pedestrians are most at risk; speed kills.

And as for bright-coloured clothing, it’s a great idea for joggers and runners at night, especially in rural areas. But it doesn’t necessarily prevent collisions. I was hit on Dupont Street by a careless taxi driver two years ago, even though I was riding safely in a bike lane. My bright, reflective jacket, my steady front and rear bike lights and my flashing helmet-mounted lights did not do a thing. I’ve been nearly hit over a dozen times by aggressive drivers racing through red lights or making right turns without looking for pedestrians with the right of way; I was attentive, and avoided injury in every case.

Some factors that make pedestrians difficult to see at night include poor lighting, inattentive and/or aggressive drivers, and motorists who don’t put their headlights on at night. There’s nothing wrong with reminding all users about how to get around safely; pedestrians should always be attentive when walking in and around traffic. There’s lots that can be done to promote pedestrian safety: better infrastructure, improved lighting, lower speed limits, and so forth. Safety campaigns are a useful tool. But blaming pedestrians for their wardrobe is ridiculous and misses the point.

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