The region’s highway agencies have begun their annual Street Smart campaign promoting road safety. Unfortunately, many of the ads undermine safety by blaming the victim, and advocating the misconception that pedestrians are mere obstacles to cars.
In this year’s version of Street Smart, roadside posters designed for visibility from fast-moving vehicles depict pedestrians as sad-looking young people with car tire tracks across their faces. Although some of the ads do target driver behavior, many wrongly imply that it’s pedestrians’ responsibility to avoid being run over by inattentive drivers.
Don’t blame pedestrians for bad road design
One such sign adorns a bus shelter on Sunnyside Avenue, in Beltsville.
Smaller print at the bottom of the sign, which you can only read if you’re on foot, adds insult to injury. It advises pedestrians to “Use crosswalks. Wait for the walk signal,” the implication being that crosswalks are the only place you can cross the street.
But getting to the nearest traffic light with a crosswalk requires walking an extra 1,500 feet, an unreasonable distance on foot. Instead, bus riders who get off at this location walk across four lanes of traffic to reach businesses on the other side of the road.
Even though there’s no marked crosswalk, this is perfectly legal and necessary behavior. Maryland law allows people to cross the street anywhere unless there’s a traffic light at both adjacent intersections. Pedestrians have the right of way at intersections and marked crosswalks; drivers elsewhere.
Combine the unsafe street design with the victim-blaming ad and the implied message becomes clear: Pedestrians aren’t welcome to use Sunnyside Avenue, and it’s their fault if they die trying. The only thing bus riders learn from the ad is that getting to the stop could kill them.
That’s not useful public education. It tells drivers not to watch out for pedestrians, and it discourages walking. Heeding these messages will make streets less safe and more congested.
This year’s campaign isn’t the first time Street Smart has run bizarre ads. Ads in 2011 seemed to suggest pedestrians are a bigger danger to cars than vice versa.
Hopefully future campaigns will avoid this pratfall. It really shouldn’t be that difficult.