Greater Greater Washington

Pedestrian safety slogan exhorts but does not educate

No one questions the need for public education about pedestrian safety, but Washington-area agencies are missing a real opportunity to educate the public in this year's annual "Street Smart" safety campaign.


Photo from Street Smart.

Both drivers and pedestrians are ignorant of some important rules of sharing the road and only dimly aware of others. With the slogan "Obey pedestrian & traffic safety laws" now visible all over the city, Washington-area transportation agencies have substituted empty exhortation for education. Their publicity campaigns should teach pedestrians and drivers how to share the road.

Few drivers understand when they must yield to pedestrians and when pedestrians must yield to them; few pedestrians know when they can and cannot cross a street in the middle of a block.

A genuinely educational campaign could feature messages like "Never cross mid-block between two traffic lights" or "Come to full stop before turning right on red." The slogan "Stop for pedestrians at marked and unmarked crosswalks" would stimulate the public's curiosity, since few know about unmarked crosswalks (places where the pavement has none of the familiar crosswalk lines, but a crosswalk still legally exists, and drivers still must yield to pedestrians crossing the street).

Highway agencies recognize that education about pedestrian safety must accompany engineering and enforcement. But our region, especially outside the District and Arlington, has a spotty record in engineering and enforcement. That makes educating the public about pedestrian safety all that more important.

Ben Ross was president of the Action Committee for Transit for 15 years. His new book about the politics of urbanism and transit, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, is published by Oxford University Press. 

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Thanks for this post. I saw one of these signs yesterday and I didn't get it. I also was too far away to read the smaller type, and at that distance the doll looked like a seriously mangled human. So I assumed it was a shock tactic thing. Oy.

by LoLo on Apr 6, 2012 11:03 am • linkreport

Ben.... GREAT observations. I represent DC on the Transportation Planning Board Citizens Advisory Council. In a meeting they gave us a preview of the campaign. I pointed out many of the same issues that you have addressed. In the "commercial" there's a woman getting hit while she's in a crosswalk. While they does happen, we all know the most dangerous are the mid-block crossings and crossings at intersections where there is no crosswalk. IF a ped is hit in a crosswalk, it's usually because of a distracted driver. I don't know who MWCOG hired for the campaign, but imo it's a missed opportunity.

by Veronica O. Davis (Ms V) on Apr 6, 2012 11:07 am • linkreport

"We stop killer pedestrian crashes" is not only not instructive, it doesn't make sense.

by Karl on Apr 6, 2012 11:15 am • linkreport

Missed opportunity, likely, but it's not a rare opportunity. This campaign happens twice per year and they always rotate the messages. Let's hope for something more educational in the fall.

As for the current campaign, how exactly do the pictured police officers "stop killer pedestrian crashes?" I always question why citizens put so much stock in the prevention role of police, when in fact they just come in and mop up afterwards.

by MDE on Apr 6, 2012 11:16 am • linkreport

The stupidest and worst thing I've seen: On the bike path crosswalks along Rock Creek parkway (which many pedestrians use) specifically instruct path users to STOP and yield to traffic despite the big white crosswalk painted on the road. CROSSWALKS MEAN YIELD TO THOSE IN THEM.

by ultrarunnergirl on Apr 6, 2012 11:16 am • linkreport

An educational campaign is a great idea, but I think I'd make it less ambitious. Before trying to teach people about unmarked crosswalks, let's start by getting them to understand marked crosswalks. Many drivers in DC don't seem to have any idea what a crosswalk means if it's not at an intersection with a light (I routinely see drivers honk at pedestrians in such crosswalks, or yell at those pedestrians for being in the road).

by Rob on Apr 6, 2012 11:27 am • linkreport

Hey,just focus on cars having to yield in stripey crosswalks and I'll be happy.

by beatbxo on Apr 6, 2012 11:28 am • linkreport

@ultrarunnergirl: crosswalks normally mean yield to those in them, but that can be overridden with a sign to the contrary. The sign says path users must yield, so that is the law there, right?
Drivers can normally turn right on red, but at some intersections there is a sign saying "no right turn on red," which supersedes the general rule.

@Karl: I agree. It sounds like they are trying to stop "killer pedestrians" from crashing into people.

by Mike on Apr 6, 2012 11:31 am • linkreport

@Ben - Very useful post.

Is there a similar document on unmarked crosswalks for DC?

by Mitch Wander on Apr 6, 2012 11:33 am • linkreport

Thanks for the great point. I'd like something similar for bicyclists and drivers- I don't always know who has the right of way in certain situations, and I know drivers don't, either.

by Cbiship on Apr 6, 2012 11:37 am • linkreport

I've always wanted to give MWCOG an A for effort with the Streets Smarts campaign, but they've never ever ever gotten the messaging right. It's time to pony up some money to a marketing firm that will give it some real thought. If it's good, it can be used year long or licensed to other municipalities and agencies doing similar work. Perhaps with the merger of the big 3 national bike advocacy groups, we could see LAB's education and traffic justice focus melded with Bikes Belong's marketing savvy to come up with something good for a national distribution through ABW affiliated groups.

I will say that DDOT has typically done well with this campaign in using a portion of the funds to train MPD on better bike/ped safety enforcement. Sure, it leads to some jaywalking or red light running tickets, but the bulk of it focuses on motorists' infractions which is the larger safety issue.

by Jeff on Apr 6, 2012 12:17 pm • linkreport

I think understanding that there are reasons why pedestrians break the law beyond ignorance and stupidity. Pedestrian rights of way are frequently implemented with a lower convenience factor than those for autos. @ultrarunnergirl made a good point though in that case I would yield to autos for the simple reason that an auto weighs more than I do regardless of who is right.

by Kevin Diffily on Apr 6, 2012 12:21 pm • linkreport

you beat me to this, although I still plan to write about it. The StreetSmarts campaign last year and this year isn't very good. The messages are unclear. I have been trying to track down a great campaign from AZ or NM, but I can't seem to run it down, hence my delay on writing.

Re Ms. D's points -- actually more crashes happen in crosswalks than out of crosswalks, but that's because (my thinking anyway) that more pedestrians are in crosswalks overall than they are not.

by Richard Layman on Apr 6, 2012 12:22 pm • linkreport

Jeff -- they do pay a marketing firm to make the ads. I just don't think that people at the winning firm have much experience walking... and the are car-centric.

by Richard Layman on Apr 6, 2012 12:23 pm • linkreport

crosswalks normally mean yield to those in them, but that can be overridden with a sign to the contrary.

If that's the intention, then wouldn't it be clearer to not paint a big white crosswalk? Couldn't you also interpret the situation as "a stop sign normally means yield but that can be overridden with a painted crosswalk to the contrary."

Personally, I've always interpreted the combo of a trail stop sign and a painted crosswalk as the equivalent of a red blinking light for trail users.

by Falls Church on Apr 6, 2012 12:24 pm • linkreport

@ultragirl and mike,

The use of stop signs on trails has been contentious. That is also the case along the W&OD and CCT.

Some have claimed there is no provision in the traffic code for them which applies to pedestrians (which also includes cyclists using a trail) and so trail users have no duty to adhere to them.

If they placed a sign telling you to stand on your head would you have to legally do it?

In at least one case a cyclist cited for not stopping challenged the ticket and the judge agreed with the cyclist.

by JeffB on Apr 6, 2012 1:52 pm • linkreport

@Richard I'm not arguing whether peds get hit in crosswalks or not. I stated mid-block and non-crosswalk intersections are more dangerous. i.e. ped more likely to sustain more serious injuries. The other issue with the crosswalk is this ad campaign is supposed to be for the entire region. Once you get out of the core into the suburban and rural areas, lack of crosswalk becomes more commonplace.

@All... MWCOG had a marketing firm and supposedly focus groups when developing the message. When presented to the CAC we had concerns regarding the messaging. It doesn't stick or resonant with people.

by Veronica O. Davis (Ms V) on Apr 6, 2012 2:16 pm • linkreport

This is a horrible ad campaign. The only thing missing would be an exhortation from these too-serious officers to "respect their authoritah."

by phil on Apr 6, 2012 3:39 pm • linkreport

I've been saying the same thing for years. "Share the Road" is nice and all, but telling people what sharing means is better.

by David C on Apr 6, 2012 10:45 pm • linkreport

At those same Rockcreek Parkway crossings, I often have to dodge MPD officers riding motorcycles against traffic on the trail. This is after work around the hour when the rush hour service of the parkway needs to be reversed.
I can understand their need to avoid the parkway going against the flow, but the large MPD cycles are very intimidating on a narrow trail full of pedestrians and cyclists.

by newrunner on Apr 7, 2012 7:06 pm • linkreport

I think understanding that there are reasons why pedestrians break the law beyond ignorance and stupidity. Pedestrian rights of way are frequently implemented with a lower convenience factor than those for autos.

This. Times a million.

I've often considered putting together a website to feature intersections where area traffic engineers have shat on pedestrians. It's not as though it would ever go wanting for material. My personal favorite is the one at the southwest corner of Lincoln Park, where the pedestrian walk signal on the far side of the intersection turns "white" just as the right-turn arrow for cars turns green.

Meanwhile, there's a pedestrian signal on the mid-street island, but up out of the pedestrian's line of sight that remains "orange". And, to top things off, when the mid-street ped signal changes, we're given all of 8 seconds to get across.

I'm sure that one of these days when a pedestrian inevitably steps into the path of an oncoming car, we'll get treated to an extended sermon on the dangers of distracted driving.

by oboe on Apr 9, 2012 1:53 pm • linkreport

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