When Walkers Die: It can Happen to Anyone

Years ago, I almost ran down a homeless man in San Diego. I don’t know for sure that he was homeless, but he wandered across the four-lane Pacific Highway one night, dressed all in dark clothing, in front of my car. I only saw him at the last second, and I don’t think he saw me at all. He had long dark hair and an old army overcoat. I might have missed him by two feet.

That’s not much margin for error. I could have as easily hit him as not. I would have stopped, and I would have likely been arrested. My life would be different today. I’d have the death or grievous injury of a human being on my conscience, and probably a record, too.

I’m reminded of this every time I see a news story about a pedestrian killed by a car. It could have been me, in either position. Nowadays chances are better that I’d be on foot, and thus my chances of surviving such an accident would be worse. But it could happen to anyone.

Recently, two regular readers (thank you, readers) sent me two links: one from Maine, the other from Ireland.

Writing in the Portland Press Herald, James Hettenbach and Lauri Boxer-Macomber lament the public tendency to side with drivers:

“All too often after the death of a pedestrian or bicyclist, the media and public ask questions like: Why was she wearing dark clothing at night? Why wasn’t he using a light or a flashlight? Why was she in a dimly lit area? Why was he riding his bike on that street at that time? The discourse evokes a blame-the-victim mindset, suggesting that pedestrians and cyclists on Maine’s roadways somehow invite their own deaths by walking to the grocery store in jeans and a parka instead of a neon orange reflective jacket.”

Theirs is a valid point, and I’ll return to it in a moment. But some pedestrians and cyclists are hard to see. As a walker and cyclist I am every bit as invested in my own safety as is the driver of a car. When I drive, I don’t run red lights for fear of getting T-boned, and when I walk I don’t recklessly wander into lanes of moving traffic. I use lights on my bike at night and wear bright clothing.

But I empathize with drivers who get annoyed when people ride bikes without lights or cross the street in the middle of the block on a dark night. At the same time, drivers must accept most of the onus for safety, because they are the ones operating a lethally powerful machine. That’s why we license drivers but not bicyclists, and why we don’t tell pedestrians what to wear.

It’s up to the driver, ultimately, to look out for pedestrians and cyclists. With greater power (a motor vehicle vs. a bicycle or a human body) comes greater responsibility.

The piece from Ireland, written by Cian Ginty, contains a revealing short video, an “awareness test” that demonstrates how easy it is not to see something you aren’t looking for. I wasn’t looking for a guy crossing the Pacific Highway on foot that night in San Diego. But it would have been my fault if I had hit him.

Unexpected things can happen on the road at any time. Drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists are all capable of erratic behavior. Animals can come out of nowhere; ditto children and homeless people.

The best way to increase pedestrian and cyclist safety is for more people to walk and bicycle, and for drivers to be constantly aware of them. Ginty concurs:

“One of the most quoted bits of research is from public health consultant Peter Jacobsen, who studied data from Europe and North America. Jacobsen established that: ‘A motorist is less likely to collide with a person walking and bicycling if more people walk or bicycle. Policies that increase the numbers of people walking and bicycling appear to be an effective route to improving the safety of people walking and bicycling.’

He says this result is “unexpected” as it is ‘unlikely that the people walking and bicycling become more cautious if their numbers are larger, it indicates that the behaviour of motorists controls the likelihood of collisions with people walking and bicycling. It appears that motorists adjust their behaviour in the presence of people walking and bicycling.’”

I’ve left intact his Irish spelling. It behooves us all to behave better, on either side of the ocean, or the windshield.




Hank Garfield

About Hank Garfield

Hank's writing has appeared in San Diego Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Downeast, Bangor Metro, and elsewhere. He is the author of five published novels, and is now seeking a publisher for his recently-completed novel, A Sprauling Family Saga.