Why myths about drunk pedestrians killed in the dark may be so important to traffic authorities.

Last updated: 11-22-2020

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Why myths about drunk pedestrians killed in the dark may be so important to traffic authorities.

If the focus of efforts to “improve pedestrian safety” is false education, a new dawn of actual safety and reduced fatalities is not around the corner.

A vociferous campaign of misleading information led by traffic and highway authorities means one thing — adequate funding and real changes to infrastructure may not be the focus of efforts to address the horrific and steep rise in US pedestrian fatalities over the past 10 years.

Here’s some traffic safety marketing campaign specifics which are big on drunkenness and flashlights, but lead us firmly down a dark alley of unabated pedestrian deaths.

In2018, the most recent year on which Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data is available, 34% of the 6,677 reported pedestrian fatalities occurred in the dark, on unlit roads. The remaining 38.5% occurred during night-time on lit streets.

“76% of pedestrian fatalities occurred in the dark” is used by traffic/highway authorities to provide misleading and inappropriate safety advice, including the widely shared prompt to “carry a flashlight…to make yourself more visible to motorists”.

Using a flashlight on lit urban streets would be both highly unexpected and unusual. Like everyone else, I use a flashlight on unlit rural streets with no sidewalks.

The FHWA provide the correct approach to illuminating and crossing pedestrians safely in urban areas:

“Don’t be in the dark when it comes to pedestrian safety. Learn about four approaches to improving pedestrian visibility and safety at crossings in the dark inFHWA’s crosswalk visibility enhancements virtual storyboard.”

Verdict: 3 out of 4 pedestrian fatalities did not occur in the dark.

2. One third of pedestrians hit and killed were drunk

“GHSAHQ’s new report exploring the rise in the number of U.S. pedestrian deaths finds that nearly HALF (49%) of fatal pedestrian crashes in the U.S. involve either drunk walkers (33%) or drunk drivers (16%)”, say the Washington Regional Alcohol Program.

The claim is repeated by the NHTSA in their safety tips for pedestrians:

“Anestimated33% of fatal pedestrian crashes in 2018 involved a pedestrian who was drunk.” (own emphasis added)

But FARS data states only 9.6% pedestrians killed in 2018 were “under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or medication”.

What proportion of these 9.6% were actually “drunk”? And how about the remaining 23.4% which would make up the 33%?

The NHTSA confirmed they do not definitively know how many pedestrians killed in 2018 were drunk at the time of impact:

“ The alcohol data presented in the2018 Bicyclists and Other Cyclists/Pedestrian fact sheetsare based on the individual’s BAC, which is a combination of BACs from known alcohol test results,and imputed BACs when they are not known”(own emphasis added).

Verdict: 33% pedestrians killed in 2018 are not known to have been drunk.

Example campaign wording from Florida Department of Transport:

“October isPedestrianSafety Month!Pedestriansafety is crucial to know forpedestrians, motor vehicle operators, and all other road users becausepedestriansafety is a two-way street that involvesequalrespect andequalresponsibility.”

The NHTSA state: “As a road user — whether pedestrian or motorist or scooter rider or bicyclist — the “legal responsibility and obligations” are shared equally.”

This is false. Legal responsibility and obligations are not shared equally between drivers and pedestrians.

Drivers have a far greater legal responsibility and duty of care towards vulnerable road users because they are capable of and regularly do injure and kill them through negligent and dangerous driving. This is why there are serious criminal offences for hit and runs, dangerous and impaired driving causing serious injury or death, and no equivalent offences for pedestrians.

The NHTSA argue “Equal Responsibility” is a thing by comparing careless conduct by pedestrians on a like for like/equal basis to dangerous driving:

“If a motorist is speeding, distracted, etc., he is neither showing respect to pedestrians and other road users, nor behaving responsibly. Just as if a pedestrian is jaywalking because he’s in the middle of a text and didn’t notice that the light was red, he is neither showing respect to motorists and other road users, nor behaving responsibly.”

“Equal Responsibility” strongly reflects political opinions that vulnerable road users need to be more accountable in law. Such a dystopian world exists only in the minds of persons who do not have a balanced and objectively based opinion on the immense harm and danger caused by motorized vehicles and their often negligent drivers.

By far the most extreme attempt to compare on a like-for-like/equal responsibility basis criminal driving to pedestrian conduct is this deleted message fromZero Fatalities:

In this NHTSA-desired world of “equal responsibility” pedestrians can always do something to make themselves more seen and to avoid being hit. Even when they’re killed from behind by a driver who left the victim to die on the road, and never came forward to face justice. Telling drivers they can somehow avoid being hit in the same circumstance would be unthinkable of course.

Nathan Haun’s parents have a different perspective, expressed in a facebook memorial post;

“Now we are here 5 years later and some selfish SOB is too selfish to face the consequences of what they have done. You have left us with so much pain.. You not only took my son, you took away a future daughter in law, grandchildren, and all the memories that come with them”

Verdict: Pedestrians and drivers do not have equal rights and equal responsibilities, either in law or in reality.

4. Conclusion: “Don’t be in the dark when it comes to pedestrian safety.”

These words from the FHWA could not be more apt.

Misconstruing statistical information about the premature death of vulnerable human road users to make them appear blameworthy is both unethical and harmful. But this isn’t the worst potential consequence of these marketing campaigns.

Naively, people who have no choice but to walk in unsafe conditions may have every expectation that an increase in pedestrian fatalities could bring about a change in approach and attitudes. Finally traffic authorities will “get it” and accommodate pedestrian safety requirements with more funding, action and priority.

However, the NHTSA are big on misleading educational messages, small on actual cash grants to address a vulnerable road user safety crisis. Of the approx. $650 million annual Federal funding grants dished out by the NHTSA for safety related transportation projects, around $15 million or 2% is consistently allocated for non-motorized transport projects.

A denial from key traffic authorities of their own responsibility, aggressively pursued with misleading information about pedestrian fatalities, could signify both a reluctance to change biased opinions and confront the reality of what has caused the steep rise in fatalities — urban roads that are unfit and unsafe for use by pedestrians.

Why would traffic and highway authorities want to curb their traditional approach and views? The myth of the drunk pedestrian killed in the dark is the front line in defense of their raison d’existence, their thing, their passion. Dead pedestrians are an unwelcome challenge to that worldview, and making them blameworthy may keep those much needed changes at bay.


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