Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Driving 101: Interacting with pedestrians

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Many years ago, during one of my first morning commutes into downtown Washington, DC, I happened upon a scene that continues to give me a smile whenever it comes to mind. Those of you familiar with DC know that the section of K Street around 18th Street is set up with the main roadway and a distinct parking/right turn thruway that is physically separated by a concrete island. This thruway is frequently backed up because of cars parking or making right turns and is often congested. Pedestrian and bicycle traffic are plentiful as well during the morning commute, adding to the confusion.

On this particular morning, things were no different. I was standing on the concrete island waiting to cross K Street when I hear a series of horn blasts followed by a string of epithets coming from behind me. I turn around to see a very late model gray Mercedes S-Class patiently waiting with its turn signal on as pedestrians crossed the street with the walk signal. The source of the ongoing string of profanity was a cabbie, who seemed none too pleased to have to wait. A few more blasts of his horn and a few more angry words finally ticked off the driver of the Mercedes. The door to the luxury sedan popped open and out stepped a rather large black man dressed like a gangster rapper - Timbalands, saggy jeans, long flowing dreads, and plenty of bling on display. Undeterred, the cab driver continued to spout off; at least, until the driver of the Mercedes started reaching into his waistband.

Now, the cab driver was in clear violation of the basic rules of interacting with pedestrians, especially given how pedestrian unfriendly many US cities are already. As drivers, we have an obligation to be more attentive to those road users who are more vulnerable than us. Bicyclists may move quickly and be maneuverable, but lack the protection of the steel cage of a car. Pedestrians move slowly have no protection whatsoever and it is therefore our duty as drivers to be evermore vigilant when we are around them. There are a few common scenarios where drivers will encounter pedestrians and this is intended as a reminder on how best to interact with them in these instances.

At Intersections

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The most common place where cars and pedestrians tend to interact is at intersections. Usually, there are marked crosswalks that pedestrians should be using as well as crossing signals that help manage the flow of pedestrian traffic in conjunction with the flow of vehicle traffic. However, most states also indicate in their vehicle codes that even when unmarked, there are technically crosswalks at any intersection. Therefore, even without a marked crosswalk or traffic signals, it pays to be particularly attentive to the presence of pedestrians at any intersection, especially if making a right turn on red. This is one of the situations that results in the most vehicle-pedestrian contact and is one maneuver that drivers need to take extra care when executing. Additionally, blocking the crosswalk is a ticketable offense in most jurisdictions so take extra care to make sure your vehicle is not blocking any part of one. If you are unable to cross the intersection or complete your turn without blocking the crosswalk and/or the intersection, then just be patient and wait for the next cycle of the light.

At Driveways/Entrances

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Slightly less frequent, but still a common occurrence, is the interaction of drivers with pedestrians at entrances to driveways or parking lots. Here, drivers must always yield to pedestrian traffic because, more likely than not, you will be crossing the sidewalk to enter the destination. To make sure that you are not being a nuisance to traffic, plan ahead and move your car as far out of the active traffic lane as possible. Make sure to use your turn signal to indicate both to traffic behind you as well as approaching pedestrians that you are planning on entering the driveway or parking lot. The same applies when exiting. If visibility is poor, due to cars parked along the street, wait until there is a sufficient break in the flow of pedestrian traffic before inching out to get a better view. If traffic on the road is backed up, make every effort not to wait and not block the sidewalk.

At Mid-street Crosswalks

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These seem particularly popular here in the Boston area. On longer blocks in the city and surrounding suburbs, there will frequently be a crosswalk that appears about mid-block. Usually, these have no signals and are denoted by little more than a few lines on the ground and some signage. Drivers should take extra care when approaching these and should make an effort to reduce speed in anticipation of needing to come to a stop. As you approach, keep your eyes scanning on both sides of the road and if you see a pedestrian step off of the sidewalk and onto the roadway, it is your obligation to make every effort to bring your car safely to a stop. In most places, failure to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk is a ticketable offense. If you are unable to stop, make an effort to signal a reduction in your speed and help the person behind you come to a stop to be in compliance with the law.

These common scenarios are ones that I suspect most drivers come across rather frequently and probably do not give much thought to. However, they are also some of the most dangerous places for pedestrians precisely because of the interaction with a two-ton vehicle. By taking a few extra precautions and being extra patient, we drivers can help do our part to keep all manners of traffic flowing smoothly and safely. Going forward, we can only hope that city planners will be smart enough to start to take more road users into account when designing roads and instead of providing these potentially dangerous interaction points can find ways to provide dedicated pathways to separate pedestrian and vehicle traffic all together.

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As for our rather petulant cab driver, he was fortunate that the driver of the Mercedes was reaching for a badge and not a firearm. The man driving the Mercedes turned out to be an undercover police officer and was pretty thoroughly pissed off by the actions of the cab driver. As the light changed and I continued on my way to work, I could hear the officer behind me berating the cab driver and reminding him about his obligations to yield to pedestrians. Let that serve as a reminder that pedestrian safety is a very serious issue and one that we all can do a better job of keeping top-of-mind.

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