View from the crash site in the direction of the approaching car.  Photos by the author.

Last Wednesday afternoon, Loudoun County school principal Kathleen Hwang was killed while walking near her Sterling home. Media and police reporting on this tragic death exemplifies the double standard used to assess blame when automobiles and pedestrians collide.

Ms. Hwang was hit by a westbound Dodge Durango, which an 18-year-old male was driving. She was crossing White Water Drive between Longsford Way and Levee Way.

As in many such tragic crashes, local police were quick to point out that Ms. Hwang was not in a crosswalk, implying that she was at least partially at fault.  Press reports, such as in the Washington Post, and Fox 5 repeated these statements.

Despite the way police and press reports make it sound, it doesn’t appear Ms. Hwang was acting carelessly when she crossed where she did. If anything, the place where she crossed looks to be safer than the crosswalk.

Virginia law (§ 46.2-923) instructs pedestrians to cross “when possible” at marked crosswalks and intersections, just as it instructs drivers never to go even 1 mph faster than the speed limit.  But it also says that pedestrians are not necessarily negligent when they cross mid-block.

Pedestrians are not allowed to cross mid-block if drivers will not be able to see them §46.2-926). However, that is not true here. Quite the contrary, drivers are better able to see pedestrians here than at the unsignalized intersection to the east, which has a marked crosswalk.

Approximate site of fatal collision.  Image from Google Earth.

None of the news media bothered to ask why Ms. Hwang might have chosen not to use the nearby crosswalk. The reason is apparent when one visits the site.  Beyond the crosswalk, White Water Drive curves to the left and dips behind a small hill.  The midblock crossing would actually be safer, because drivers have a better view.

Driver’s view 330 ft away from a pedestrian at the curb.  Left: Pedestrian at crash site.  Right: Pedestrian at crosswalk.  Click on a photo to enlarge.

If, as the police suggest, Ms. Hwang was not able to see the approaching vehicle, what significance does the crosswalk have?  The car would have been even harder to see from the crosswalk. There, she would be in greater danger of inadvertently stepping in front of an approaching vehicle.

Police and media disparage victim, ignore possible driver factors

The police say that the driver was not speeding.  The stopping distance for a Dodge Durango moving at the 35-mph speed limit, allowing 2 seconds reaction time, is 142 feet.  Visibility at the crash site is more than 330 feet, so an attentive driver moving at the speed limit had room to stop.  Why did the police not address stopping distance, something far more relevant than the crosswalk location, in their public statement?

The police and the Post article also took the trouble to report that Ms. Hwang was wearing earphones.  They did not describe her other attire.  This detail has no relevance except as a hint — quickly seized on in comment threads — that she was at fault for not paying attention to the road. 

There is no mention of whether the driver had a car radio on, and I don’t recall the Post ever mentioning car radios in reporting on a crash.  Music, in general, is equally distracting whether one is walking or driving, but a pedestrian, whose carelessness will not harm others, does not have the same obligations as someone in control of a ton of fast-moving steel.  And in this case, it’s much easier to imagine that an 18-year-old new driver might have been oblivious to his surroundings than a 60-year-old school principal.

Many small changes in the circumstances could have avoided this tragedy. Clearly, had Ms. Hwang not crossed at this time, it wouldn’t have happened, and pedestrians always need to recognize that they are vulnerable crossing the street. It is safer not to have music interfering with one’s ability to hear. But had the driver been traveling slower or noticed Ms. Hwang earlier, he might also have been able to avoid the crash.

What police and the media should never do is automatically assume that anyone crossing outside a crosswalk or wearing earphones is to blame.  Pedestrians deserve the same opportunities as drivers to use the streets without being killed, and even to listen to music while they are doing it.