Monday, December 17, 2012

Crosswalk Safety: Better Enforcement

Given some of my posts on the need for improved crosswalk safety, I was concerned to hear the recent statement by the Halifax Regional police that, despite a spate of recent crosswalk fatalities and injuries, they do not plan to increase enforcement of crosswalk violations, but will focus instead on educating the public.  It was even more concerned by the statement by Toronto police that the answer to crosswalk accidents is for pedestrians to wear lighter clothes.  This was recently echoed by one Chronicle Herald columnist.

Public education must go hand in hand with enforcement. In order to be effective, laws must be both well understood and well enforced.  The two are mutually reinforcing.  Enforcement without education is unfair, because people cannot reasonably be expected to follow laws they are not aware of or do not understand.   And education without enforcement is somewhat toothless: some people will ignore laws unless they are held to account for breaking them.

I've had more than one person suggest to me that crosswalk safety is merely a matter of common sense and personal responsibility.  Pedestrians know they are at risk, and so they should take every precaution, including wearing lighter clothes.  That certainly seems to be the view of some people within the police department.

I agree that common sense should prevail, and that all users of the road should act with a regard for their safety and that of others.  Pedestrians should look both ways before crossing the road, and should make sure drivers see them and have time to stop.  The fact you had the right of way will matter very little if you are seriously hurt or even killed.

Similarly, drivers need to be exercise caution when approaching all intersections, and be on the lookout for pedestrians waiting to cross as well as those already in the crosswalk.  It is sometimes difficult for pedestrians to tell whether drivers have seen them and intend to stop, so it helps if drivers make eye contact with pedestrians and make clear they have seen them.

A little courtesy doesn't hurt either.  As a pedestrian, I always try and acknowledge drivers that do stop with a friendly wave.

So I agree that Crosswalk safety starts with personal responsibility.  However, as recent events demonstrate, when people are breaking the law and endangering public safety, it doesn't end with personal responsibility.  All the common sense in the world won't save you from other people's lack thereof.  That is why we have laws. 

To that point, I was recently out for a walk with my one year old son, pushing him in his stroller.  We came to a marked crosswalk across a two-lane street near our house.  I looked both ways, and there was no traffic coming in either direction, so we started across the crosswalk.  We were almost halfway across, about to enter the far lane, when a car came speeding around the nearest corner, headed towards us on the far side of the road.  I could see the driver was not going to stop, so I did.  She flew past us about a foot away without even a glance in our direction.  We had been well into the crosswalk when she turned the corner, so I don't know if she simply didn't see us (I'm a big guy, and the weather was good) or if she simply didn't care.  I'm not sure which is more frightening.  I was a little shaken up and didn't get the woman's plates to report her.  I should have.

Had we been a foot further into the road, she would have hit my son in his stroller.  And although I'd exercised common sense and personal responsibility, that would not have mattered had by son been run over.

Where other people fail to exercise common sense and personal responsibility, we need laws to hold them accountable.  But laws only work if they are enforced.

Yet it seems that in Halifax and elsewhere, crosswalk laws are rarely enforced unless someone gets hurt or killed.  It is apparently uncommon for police to ticket either pedestrians or drivers for crosswalk violations unless someone gets hit. And the police seem to have little appetite for an actual enforcement campaign.

Of course, laws can't be enforced unless the police know they are being broken.  I'd encourage users of the road to report crosswalk violations when they see them.  I've certainly heard stories of the police citing people for crosswalk violations based on citizen reports.

Reporting more incidents will also give police more accurate info on just how serious the crosswalk safety problem is.  To that end, I am glad to hear that Halifax police may be getting a traffic accident mapping tool that enables them to identify hot spots.  Of course, the tool will only be truly effective if they then take out their ticket pads and target those hot spots with targeted enforcement campaigns.

At the end of the day, while education is important, better enforcement can serve an educational function as well, a high profile campaign of enforcement can itself be a very effective form of education, reminding both motorists and pedestrians of their responsibilities to themselves and to each other.

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