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Cars don't kill people, irresponsible drivers do

Every year, tens of thousands of people are killed in auto collisions. In 2012, there were over 34,000 fatalities in the United States alone. This ad from Pakistani newspaper the Frontier Post puts the issue in context.

Image from the Frontier Post.

Over the past 11 years, I have gotten around primarily as a pedestrian and transit user. I've had far too many close calls with drivers who are distracted or who are acting irresponsibly.

Just yesterday, a driver came to a four-way stop while I was crossing the street. But the driver was turning right, and since there was no traffic approaching from the left, she didn't even come to a stop. In fact, she never looked to her right, where I was entering the crosswalk.

Cars have done a lot for the world, and I'm certainly not proposing that we get rid of them.

But I don't think many people think about the risk and responsibility that comes with putting a key in the ignition. Your trip to the grocery store could easily turn fatal, as it does for thousands every year.

So next time you drive, remember that you're driving a machine that could kill someone. Please use it responsibly.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Hes a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer. 


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Yup. I'm primarily a pedestrian/transit user, and I can't even count the number of times I've almost been hit while crossing the street. (FWIW, I only cross in crosswalks when I have the walk sign. If I ever get hit I don't want there to be any ambiguity about who was at fault!)

However, I do drive often too, and from that perspective I see a number of ways we can improve our roadways to make them safer for all users. Many intersections are poorly lit, making it difficult for even attentive drivers to see people crossing the street. Additionally, providing ample marked, signalized crossing points for pedestrians in locations where people actually want to cross the street would dramatically cut down on jaywalking and unpredictable pedestrian behavior. Traffic engineers need to think like a lazy pedestrian when placing crosswalks!

by Rebecca on Jan 16, 2014 11:26 am • linkreport

Rebecca, good points, but it's not about 'lazy pedestrians', it's about designing roadways that are merely in line with normal human behavior.

by Craig on Jan 16, 2014 11:29 am • linkreport

Almost struck two days ago in a parking lot because the driver was only looking in the direction they were going rather than in all directions someone could be.

We could get rid of right turn on red in areas that have pedestrians. That was only started as a measure to improve fuel efficiency and is probably no longer needed.

by Michael Perkins on Jan 16, 2014 11:52 am • linkreport

"We could get rid of right turn on red in areas that have pedestrians."

As a case study, we could look at intersections in DC where right turns on red are already banned. I'd be willing to bet that a significant amount of time the drivers just ignore the bans and turn right anyway.

We can improve design, but how do we enforce? Cameras are already political hot potatoes. MPD only seems to enforce traffic symbolically after enough complaints are made (ie. U-turns on Penn), and then only temporarily.

by RP on Jan 16, 2014 12:12 pm • linkreport

We can improve design, but how do we enforce?

I am trying to get my reflex to change from some internal cursing to a very loud 'YIELD' when I get nearly run over. It works because it's a nice primal syllable. It is starting to work. Drivers are at least noticing me know.

Also drivers: I do not want an apology. It is not enough. I want you to stop speeding through intersections when you have to yield.

by Jasper on Jan 16, 2014 12:17 pm • linkreport

love the ad! reminds me of some military campaigns on road safety, but if we're going to get serious about this we must address both sides. i know its not popular but pedestrians need to step up and start wearing reflective gear. always loved this graphic ad on that:

by will on Jan 16, 2014 12:37 pm • linkreport

Banning right turns on red and coordinating the walk signs so that pedestrians and cars don't mix in crosswalks would really help. I lived in London for six years and the walksigns all came on at once while traffic was fully stopped. Also beneficial because you can cross diagonally.
So many people turn right on red and don't even look, much less stop.

by rindupont on Jan 16, 2014 1:00 pm • linkreport

I am agreeing with everyone on banning the right-on-red, especially in the city. Drivers aren't looking to the right when they turn; they're only looking left for the traffic. +1 to rindupont about the four-way stops too!

by dc denizen on Jan 16, 2014 1:04 pm • linkreport

Amen to four-way stops. It makes it much safer, allows for diagonal crossing, etc.

by JDC on Jan 16, 2014 1:07 pm • linkreport

Are you all suggesting we should ban right turns on red for all road users?

by UrbanEngineer on Jan 16, 2014 1:36 pm • linkreport

I like this ad. As a pedestrian, I've found that highway off ramps are the the most dangerous form of intersection. I frequently walk across Beltway ramps, and drivers don't even look to their right when merging onto the local roads. I've almost been hit several times by cars coming off the Beltway going 40-50 MPH. As far as most drivers in that situation are concerned, the crosswalk doesn't exist.

by Sean on Jan 16, 2014 1:44 pm • linkreport


Yes, I'd back a universal ban on right-turn-on-red in urban areas. I remember life before it was commonplace; most drivers reached their destinations, and pedestrians were appreciable safer.

by Sally M. on Jan 16, 2014 2:14 pm • linkreport

"Are you all suggesting we should ban right turns on red for all road users?"


Anywhere there's a reason to permit huge volumes of traffic turning right, we can simply install protected right-turn signalization (those traffic lights that display green arrows) and, since those types of intersections usually also have tremendous volumes of left-turning traffic, couple protected right turns with protected left turns.

This gets cooler, because we can combine it with concepts like the 'green wave' and split phasing to actually dramatically increase both non-vehicle-user safety AND vehicle throughput at the same time (this is one of the best ways to make roads function better because there's no element of sacrificing pedestrian safety for road capacity), meaning that everybody benefits.

by Ryan on Jan 16, 2014 2:26 pm • linkreport

Does anyone know how roadway levels of service are calculated in Montgomery County?

I'm hazarding a guess it is based on a points system, and one that rewards removing cognitive distractions from drivers. Like marked crosswalks. Or marking crosswalks only three sides of an intersection. And if forced to mark, use just two parallel lines rather than the floating piano keys.

I know there are separate reference books out there for complete streets and best practices, I just think it is time to fold those back into the standards.

by duncan on Jan 16, 2014 2:32 pm • linkreport

Most drivers reached their destinations

I didn't realize some of them perished while waiting for the light to turn green.

by Michael Perkins on Jan 16, 2014 2:35 pm • linkreport

So many people turn right on red and don't even look, much less stop.

And so many people on foot don't even so much as look up to make sure it's safe to cross either. I don't mean me turning on a red, I mean even looking to see if there's an emergency vehicle bearing down on them.

I walk a lot (and drive a lot and ride the bike a lot) and I still look when I have a signal to cross. Last thing I need is to be ironically killed by an ambulance.

by Another Nick on Jan 16, 2014 2:37 pm • linkreport

If right turn on red were more broadly banned, I bet drivers wouldn't be accustomed so much to free right turns everywhere. They'd have to stop and figure out whether a right turn was permitted.

by Michael Perkins on Jan 16, 2014 2:37 pm • linkreport

@Ryan & Sally M.,

When I said all road users, I was referring to all types of road users. Not just cars, trucks, buses, vans, etc...but also motorcycles, scooters, bicyclists, e-bikes, etc...

by UrbanEngineer on Jan 16, 2014 2:53 pm • linkreport

@Another Nick,

That point is worth attention, but not to the level of victim-blaming.

Pedestrians don't bear the responsibility of operating thousands of pounds of potentially lethal metal, and they have right of way more often than motorists realize. For example, by Virginia law a pedestrian should usually have a reasonable expectation of traffic yielding to them when crossing (at an intersection) a street with a speed limit of 30 and no signals or marked crosswalks. But rarely is this actually the case.

by onelasttime on Jan 16, 2014 3:33 pm • linkreport

The "four way stop" was called a "protected walk" in Boston. Most intersections had a protected walk and you could even walk diagonally from corner to corner. It was great. HOWEVER, pedestrians would still walk against the light, so it does take some education on the proper protocol. I am sure it would be easy to do a study to compare pedestrian accidents in cities with the protected walk versus those without.

by ArchStanton on Jan 16, 2014 3:55 pm • linkreport

@ turning on red
I remember life before it was commonplace; most drivers reached their destinations, and pedestrians were appreciable safer.

Road deaths and Road deaths per capita are on a steady long term decline since the mid 1960s

Eliminating turn on red might be a good idea, but not because things worked so well back in the day. We are so much safer than we use to be.

I do think that pedestrians need to be considered more in the question of which intersections allow turning on red and at what times.

by Richard on Jan 16, 2014 4:25 pm • linkreport

When I said all road users, I was referring to all types of road users. Not just cars, trucks, buses, vans, etc...but also motorcycles, scooters, bicyclists, e-bikes, etc...

Anything with a motor, yes. Maybe bikes, too, but seeing as they don't pose the kind of potential harm that motorized vehicles do--especially when starting from a stop--I doubt there's really a need.

by worthing on Jan 16, 2014 4:36 pm • linkreport

Seems like this issue is finally getting the attention it deserves. New York's Bill DeBlassio has just made it a big priority in his administration, being a matter of public safety. Out to a good start...

by Thayer-D on Jan 17, 2014 6:44 am • linkreport

I live near Stanton Park and I can confirm many motorists ignore the No Turn On Red restrictions, particularly westbound C St traffic. If it wasn't for the hazard they present to cyclists and peds it would be amusing because they immediately get stopped at Maryland Ave anyway. The intersection where Maryland, D, and 7th Sts NE come together is a notoriously dangerous place for peds because there is no visibility due to all the parked cars in the area. There are the big "stop for peds" signs in the middle of Maryland but they are universally ignored, even by the police. I have yell at them just like any other motorist but they ignore it all the same. I did manage to snap a pic of an MPD officer driving while talking on their cell phone but I haven't decided what to do with it, if anything.

by dcmike on Jan 17, 2014 8:14 am • linkreport

I was a pedestrian at an intersection. I pressed the walk light button and when the walk light came on I looked behind to make sure no cars were coming. I nearly made it to the median strip in the middle of the road when a 17-year old talking on a cellphone to his mother sped round the corner and hit me (my head dented the front of the SUV) and dragged me - fractured skull in three places, six broken ribs, feet and hands black and blue and swollen several times normal size. Unconscious for days and days. My fault because I was wearing dark clothing. Some weeks later, on a dark night and half a mile down the road on the other side of the road I could clearly see people dressed in black at the same lights I was at. If you can't see at night don't drive at night - duh! Headlights on a car are there so you can see - duh!

by aussiebach on Jan 30, 2014 5:26 pm • linkreport

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