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Who will protect pedestrians from pedestrian-safety reform?

Photograph by Pilar Vergara

I’m not thinking about pedestrian safety on Columbia Road this morning. I’m checking my dashboard clock, rushing to get to work. As I wait at an extra-long red light, a Metrobus pulls up on my right and starts inching forward, the universal signal for “I’m cutting in whether you like it or not.”

Past the intersection, the two lanes merge into one. If the bus gets the jump, I’ll be late, pinned behind it and sucking exhaust. When the light turns green, I jam the pedal to the floor and lurch out in front of the bus. As the lanes merge, I swerve slightly to the left to gain the advantage and—smack—I crunch right into the District Department of Transportation (DDOT)’s latest pedestrian-safety project.

I’ve scraped up against a 4-foot-high fluorescent yellow pylon sign in the middle of the street. It reads “D.C. Law: Yield to [pedestrian symbol] in Crosswalk.” The signs started popping up last summer as part of the DDOT’s PedSafe program, a five-year, $32 million effort to reduce vehicle-pedestrian collisions in the District—which average 550 incidents a year.

The markers are supposed to make drivers more aware of crosswalks. “The signs are a visual cue,” says Stephen Waters, president of the pedestrian-advocacy group WalkDC. “They let people know that they can’t drive the same way here that they can elsewhere.”

Well, now I know all about crosswalks: Crosswalks are where you run over those warning signs. So far, I’ve scored two direct hits and had maybe 10 close calls. Citywide, the DDOT has replaced 150 damaged pylons since the program began. At $225 a pop, it’s good for the sign makers. But I doubt it’s helping pedestrians any.

I say this not merely as a self-centered, aggressive D.C. driver. I say it also as a self-centered, aggressive D.C. pedestrian. The DDOT’s whole sign campaign is based on a false assumption: that the crosswalks are where the city’s foot traffic is to be found.

I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve ever walked to a street corner, waited for a green light, and cautiously stepped off the curb. That’s not how it goes in D.C. The whole street plan is an invitation to jaywalk: The state-named avenues take the shortest distance from point to point, angling across the letters-and-numbers grid as they please. Just try following the crosswalks where New Hampshire meets 18th meets Q, as they zigzag from corner to corner to corner. Five minutes later, you’ll be farther from your destination than when you started, while everyone else blithely scoots ahead.

Throw in the long blocks and the crowding and you have a pedestrian population that’s gone feral. It’s easier to duck between parked cars, wait for an opening, and run across the street than to follow the rules. And if you do comply and look for a “walk” sign, you could just as easily be plowed into by some asshole turning right on red.

The lawlessness is what we’re used to. Every day, we make the multiple-moving-bodies calculations for ourselves and others: Will the old woman with the rolling grocery cart make it across the street before the Greyhound bus gets there? Will four lanes of cars all stop for the drunk guy brazenly crossing against the light? Will that double-parked FedEx truck keep eastbound traffic bottled up ’til the light turns red again?

We’re not ready to stop living by our wits just because some yellow sign in the middle of the street claims we have the right of way. The experts, in fact, say that reprogramming D.C.’s wayward pedestrian population is a lost cause. “Statistics show that focusing on pedestrian behavior doesn’t reduce the number of collisions,” Waters says.

So if you take to the crosswalks, trusting in the power of D.C. traffic laws to protect you, you’re a sucker. The law may say that cars have to stop for walkers, but that’s no good unless the cars believe it. Drivers who kill pedestrians may be charged with negligent homicide, forced to pay a $5,000 fine, and/or spend five years in jail—but they aren’t the ones being scraped off the pavement. Armed robbery is against the law, too, but I’m not skipping through dark alleys at 3 a.m.

Law is not enough to save pedestrians from the perils of custom. If the signs are going to make a difference, they need to be a lot stronger, both physically and symbolically.

It starts with the “yield” message. Yielding may have a hard-and-fast meaning in drivers’ ed, but in practice, it’s an ambiguous command. District motorists, accustomed to merging into traffic that never breaks, take their yields on a situation-by-situation basis: If you can get your nose in, and you think the approaching car is afraid to hit you, then presto, you’ve yielded. So it’s hard to convince drivers that the same doesn’t apply to, say, a break in a formation of schoolchildren.

Along with At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, chair of the Committee on Public Works and the Environment, Waters’ organization is working to make the language on the signs more forceful. “Right now, the signs say ‘yield’ for pedestrians,” Waters says. “We want them to say ‘stop.’”

If the signs read “stop,” maybe they can be redone in a more arresting color as well. Perhaps red. Yellow, unfortunately, has a way of meaning “speed up.” Motorists hurry up at yellow lights, to get clear before the light goes red. A bright yellow sign says it’s time to go faster, to make it through the crosswalk before some pedestrian shows up and forces you to break speed.

They could also be made of something sturdier than the current collapsible plastic. The present design allows emergency vehicles to run over them if need be, but that keeps them from being much of a deterrent. Hitting them leaves a nick or a smudge at most. If the DDOT is serious about making pedestrians safer, maybe it should change its priorities to make driving more dangerous. Sideswiping a concrete pillar would probably leave a stronger impression.

Until the design or law enforcement is beefed up, the protection will be as flimsy as the signs themselves. And Washingtonians will keep disregarding the message. “I was walking down 13th Street—the signs are all up and down that street because of the number of schools there,” Waters says. “And I saw that someone had thrown a perfectly good one over a 12-foot fence onto Cardozo High School’s property. It was probably just someone having a good time.” Or some pedestrian could have uprooted it in self-defense. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Pilar Vergara.