What I wish traffic safety officials would say on Pedestrian Safety Month

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is currently hosting “Pedestrian Safety Month.” I am happy to see this issue getting more attention.

The agency has also received some criticism from groups like Transportation for America, for using language that shifts blame back to pedestrians. (They made the above graphic to raise their concerns.)

This is something I talk about in my book. We call it victim blaming, or pedestrian shaming or windshield bias.

Even among traffic safety officials there’s a resistance to acknowledging the power imbalance between drivers and pedestrians, the asymmetry of risk and the context in which pedestrians operate (which is often a hellscape). 

It’s a little thing, but we need traffic safety officials like NHTSA, and the Governor’s Highway Safety Association and the state departments of transportation — the agencies charged with safety messaging — to use strong language and set clear expectations for drivers. And they refuse. If they won’t, who will? 

Here are some messages — Tweet sized messages — I would like to see them embrace, just as an example. I don’t think they would be that controversial. But would at least help define appropriate behavior around pedestrians for drivers. Because anyone who has ever walked (or rolled) any distance will tell you, drivers need reminding not to be homicidal. 

Here’s what I recommend. 

Instead of “Safety is shared responsibility…”

You MUST yield to pedestrians at crosswalks. Pedestrians are very vulnerable. Driving is a big responsibility. Other people’s lives are in your hands. 

Instead of “hey kids, remember to look both ways and make eye contact with drivers.”

Slow down if you see children by the road. Let’s keep children safe. Safety is a community responsibility. Do your part. 

Instead of “Pedestrians, wear bright clothing.”

Be careful driving at night. Pedestrians are more difficult to see. Drive slowly and be aware. 

You get the gist here. All these messages are logical and straightforward and honest. The fact that our safety agencies are afraid to make these kinds of straightforward statements to drivers reflects a gross power imbalance between drivers and the primarily lower-income.