Drivers, not phones, are pedestrians' main threat

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There's a pedestrian crossing at an intersection near the end of my street that I have come to dread. It's positioned at the intersection of a side street, so that inattentive drivers intending to turn can be surprised by it.

Cartoon by Chris JohnstonBut it's not so much the positioning of it that fills me with anxiety — it's the attitude of drivers when I try to cross. One driver attempting to turn left screamed abuse at me after he realised he had to stop. Drivers attempting to turn right before realising I'm already on the crossing block oncoming traffic and take their agitation and embarrassment out on me. Drivers will try to race you so they don't have to wait.

The worst part? Even if the crossing wasn't marked, all of the drivers turning onto the street I was crossing would have to give way to me anyway. It's an oft ignored driving rule that applies in every state and territory in Australia, that most pedestrians wouldn't be game to put their bodies on the line to take advantage of.

Australian drivers are already impatient when it comes to pedestrians using clearly marked zebra crossings. Expecting right of way in front of turning cars goes just exactly as you'd expect — with a good amount of honking, car revving and verbal abuse. Is there a quick hand gesture for 'Read the road rules — I'm in the right'? I'm just about ready to get a body cam.

This is why the moral panic around pedestrians and smartphones irks me. Recently, the RACQ called for a fine for pedestrians who use their phone while crossing the road. It's touted as a solution to those pesky pedestrians who don't look when they cross the street and run into cars. Last year, Hawaii actually introduced a Distracted Walking Fine of up to US$99. But there is no good data anywhere proving the link between distracted pedestrians using smartphones, and fatal crashes.

Figures from the Australian Road Deaths database show a seven per cent spike in pedestrian deaths since the same 12 month period last year, and shockingly, an 80 per cent increase in cyclist deaths despite an overall drop in the road toll. In Victoria, crash data analysed by Victoria Walks showed that in at least 42 per cent of crashes involving an older pedestrian at an unsignalled intersection, the motorist should have given way. At signalled intersections, that figure is at least 72 per cent.

Older people are among the most vulnerable pedestrian groups, and people over 85 are eight times more likely to be hit by a car in a car park, on a footpath or in a driveway than people aged 13-64. The Victoria Walks report suggests this could be because they are less agile in terms of moving out of the path of an oncoming car (not because they're addicted to Pokemon Go). People over 65 in Victoria represent around 14 per cent of the population but 39 per cent of pedestrian fatalities.

 

"We should drive to be careful of pedestrians and other vulnerable road users — even ones who are 'in the wrong'. Everyone makes mistakes, and the power imbalance between a car and a pedestrian is enormous."

 

As a driver myself, I believe in protecting vulnerable road users, not penalising them. Even if a pedestrian could avoid an accident by putting down the smartphone, it doesn't mean they would have been at fault in the first place. I shudder to think what would have happened if I'd been looking at my phone when a woman in a 4WD ran a red light through an intersection I was just about to cross a couple of years ago. I would have been maimed, and her luxury SUV would barely have suffered a scratch. And in Hawaii, I may have also been fined for my trouble.

But we should drive to be careful of pedestrians and other vulnerable road users — even ones who are 'in the wrong'. Everyone makes mistakes, and the power imbalance between a car and a pedestrian is enormous. Threatening pedestrians with fines only emboldens the get-out-of-my-way school of driving.

One of my YouTube guilty pleasures — the Australian Dash Cam Owners channel — featured a video in which an absent minded pedestrian steps out from behind a parked vehicle into the path of a driver who has just changed lanes out of a queue of stationary traffic. Sickeningly, the car makes contact at a low speed, yet the first response of the driver is to yell 'What the f*ck are you doing?' at the possibly shocked and injured man.

While the pedestrian was definitely at fault, that the driver's first response was anger rather than concern or fear says a lot about motorists' feelings about more vulnerable road users.

That's why I'm calling for a fine for drivers who glare at you, inching ever closer to your shins, as you cross a driveway or road, legally and safely. Perhaps we, as drivers, have become complacent, in an era of air bags, low CBD speeds and RBTs. But a car is still a deadly weapon, especially for pedestrians, and I hope more of the drivers I encounter day-to-day can remember that.

 

 

Amelia PaxmanAmelia Paxman is a Brisbane-based writer, filmmaker and winner of a UNAA Media Peace award.

Topic tags: Amelia Paxman, pedestrians, cyclists, road rules

 

 

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Existing comments

In my town, there is a pedestrian crossing directly outside the newsagent. It is common for people of all ages, not only old people, to emerge from the newsagent scratching their scratchies and proceed at top speed across the street without paying the slightest attention to their own safety by watching where they are going.
Joe | 10 September 2018


Great article, Amelia. Thank you. As an eighty-year-old, I think that lack of courtesy towards aged pedestrians is a form of ageism. It is rampant on the streets where I live. So, also, is lack of courtesy of some bike riders on shared paths who seem not to see older people or expect us to move quickly out of their way. Sometimes I want to make a signal which asks, 'Which part of me is invisible now I'm an old woman?'
Maureen Helen | 10 September 2018


Thanks Amelia for your thoughtful article. I'd like to see another, e.g. one looking at that 80% spike in cyclist deaths you mentioned. Or one looking at the disproportionate presence of older citizens not only among road victims, but among thoughtless drivers: thoughtless in the sense that they really should have stopped driving years earlier. Few of our older drivers have enough insight or integrity to put civic responsibility ahead of personal convenience. Such drivers who "suddenly" lose control of their vehicle, with deadly outcomes, are no longer even considered newsworthy.
Chris | 15 September 2018


It requires commonsense and courtesy both from drivers and pedestrians to make roads and carparks safer for people of all ages. I am appalled at the behaviour of some pedestrians - and drivers too of course. Backing out of a shopping centre carpark last week, I looked both ways, no cars or people in sight, started to move but a slight sound or movement made me hesitate. A boy of 3 or 4 was riding his scooter along behind the row of parked cars while his Mum loaded shopping into her vehicle and was right behind my car. The thought of what nearly happened is giving me nightmares!
Elizabeth Harrington | 15 September 2018


We all know zebra crossings are merely cheap traffic-slowing devices. And humans are the speed bumps. During the week I was almost knocked over by a city bus as I was a quarter of the way across the zebra crossing and was forced to reverse quickly back onto the footpath. The driver was looking over his shoulder at in the opposite direction to have a sticky-beak at a cop car pulling over an errant driver! I’m hoping after my 000 call that he was the next errant driver to be pulled over as I informed the operator of his details and location.
Aurelius | 22 September 2018


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