April 28, 2008

The Crosswalks of Worcester: Police Crackdown and Pedestrians on Crack

This morning's Telegram and Gazette brings news of a police effort to make certain pedestrian crosswalks in Worcester safer:

Police play pedestrians to ensure walker safety

With police seeing a steady increase in pedestrian accidents, the Traffic Division is rolling out “Operation Safe Crossing,” a crackdown on motorists that will have police officers dressed as pedestrians using crosswalks in different areas of the city.

“The most important part of it is the focus of high pedestrian traffic areas,” said Lt. Timothy P. Walsh of the Traffic Division. “We will focus on areas where children and elderly cross because they are the more vulnerable members of the community..."

Pedestrian accidents overall have increased according to Police Department statistics. There were 177 in 2003 and 176 in 2004. After 2004, the numbers hit 200 in 2005 and 223 in 2006. There were 238 last year and, as of last week, there have been 40 so far this year...
While I think this is an admirable effort, I hope that the police will also enforce the other side of the coin on this. Far more often than I see drivers failing to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, I see pedestrians crossing streets in a manner that makes me think that they must be a bit out of touch with physical reality.

My driving often takes me down Main Street, and let me tell you, it's scary. It's not the other drivers I fear. I've found that drivers here, for the most part, are courteous — far moreso than had been my experience in the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, Tampa or Tallahassee. I see motorists stopping to let old people, young people, and everyone in between cross the street, even when they're not in a crosswalk. This is so much the case that I know that I will usually have to stop two to three times in just the distance between the intersections of Main and Mill and Main and Maywood. It's a sure bet that there will be people crossing outside of the crosswalk around Santiago's Market, for example. That's just part of driving here. No big deal.

Still, it gets quite scary at times, worse and worse as I travel north from home toward downtown. LL likens it to driving in Beirut; it's an obstacle course. One has to stay sharp to avoid any number of pedestrians who simply ignore traffic and stroll into crosswalks to cross against the lights. In fact, the heck with crosswalks. Pedestrians routinely appear from between parked cars mid-block and walk into the roadway as if there were no traffic at all. During the winter months this would often be someone dressed in black at night while I was trying to pick LL up from the train station. One needs very good brakes to avoid accidentally killing someone at night on Main Street between Maywood and Franklin. The behavior of some of these pedestrians is so irrational that I suspect a good number of them may have altered brain chemistry. Whether this has occurred due to disease or willful self-manipulation I cannot say, I only know that sane people don't fling themselves in front of moving vehicles like that. I wonder how many of the incidents cited in the T&G story have nothing to do with bad drivers and everything to do with addled ambulaters.

Drivers who drive irresponsibly as a matter of habit eventually get their licenses suspended. What's to be done with reckless pedestrians? Can they lose their walking privileges? At the very least, I believe the city should mandate that they wear a warning device of some sort visible from a distance. Perhaps they could have a flashing red strobe strapped to their heads. That way, responsible drivers would be alerted to their presence even before a bad walker once again hurled his body into traffic. We should be able to see them before they leave the curb and so have the opportunity to begin braking before the wacky walker has the chance to turn himself into an unwanted hood ornament.

Massachusetts state law is such that drivers must yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk no matter what. That's a good thing, but such a law relies on the responsible action of the pedestrian every bit as much as it does on that of the driver. I can't yield to something that I don't have a chance to see in the first place!

P.S. — A question that begs asking of the T&G editors: What exactly does it mean that police officers will be "dressed as pedestrians?" Is there some particular way that pedestrians dress? The only difference I've noticed between pedestrians and non-pedestrians in terms of their outfits is that drivers are usually "wearing" a motor vehicle and pedestrians are not. I think the article means to say that plainclothes officers will be stationed at the crosswalks. The only garb required to look like a pedestrian is some sort of footwear, I suppose.

Sphere: Related Content