Thursday, December 20, 2007

Crosswalk Madness

Once again, the increasingly whiny DC public has freaked out about something that's really the same as it's always been, and the government has reacted by throwing together an insanely disproportionate response which will surely have no effect, or perhaps even make things worse. In this case, it's about the pedestrian fatalities.

As you know, there have been a bunch of pedestrian of accidents in which an automobile-free individual was struck and killed by one of the automobile-enabled citizens of this city. As of Dec. 3, there had been 24 fatalities, which is in fact the highest it's been since 1997. So in response to this crisis it seems that the ever-image-conscious government has decided to mobilize an army of crossing guards. Because obviously, people in this city are incapable of crossing the street by themselves. Well, at least 24 of them were.

While it's a quaint idea, and I could see some value to them at particularly nasty intersections where people don't like to yield to pedestrians when turning. But they're bloody everywhere now. Therein lies the problem. Like most DC initiatives, flooding a situation with people who have no fucking idea what they are doing does not help matters.

On my way to work a couple days ago, I was driving up Georgia Avenue approaching a red light. There were cars in the right two lanes, but the left lane was open. As I was approaching the intersection, the light changed to green. So, I started speeding up again since my lane was clear ahead. As I am entering the intersection, I suddenly become aware of a madly gesticulating crossing guard in the middle of the road ahead of me. Of course, I couldn't see her at all until I was about 10 feet from the intersection, as she was in front of the other cars to my right. It was way too late to stop by the time I saw her - luckily she did not decide to step right in front of me, but it was damn close.

What on earth is a crossing guard is doing in the middle of an intersection with a green light? Was she waving pedestrians across when it said "don't walk?" Was she just not paying attention to the signals? Whatever the reason, she very nearly got herself killed. There is a point to WALK/DON'T WALK signals. I can't see around other cars. At controlled intersections, it seems incredibly dangerous for a crossing guard to be managing traffic and pedestrians in any fashion that contradicts what the lights are saying. With a lot of traffic around, it's impossible for drivers approaching the intersection to see what's going on in front of other cars. That's the whole reason we have these signals.

If this were an uncontrolled crosswalk, then a crossing guard might actually do some good by getting traffic to stop for pedestrians as they are legally obliged to do. But at controlled intersections, the lights determine the right of way. As long as the traffic signal is functioning properly, there is no reason for a cop to tell people to go against the signal in any way. It can only lead to disaster when someone else approaching the intersection, and can't see what's going on, finds themselves head to head with a pedestrian or a car that should not be there.

So, luckily, nothing happened, and a crossing guard did not become DC's 25the pedestrian fatality this year. But back to the numbers here. In and of itself, this "upswing" is meaningless. Just look at the lame chart of pedestrian deaths provided by DDOT, which only covers 2000-2004, but as you can see, the number varies wildly from year to year - anywhere from 8 to 18 in that period, and obviously, it was 24 in 1997. What's important to understand is that any analysis of statistics involving very small numbers (such as 8 and 24) is essentially meaningless. There really is no crisis.

Beyond that, DC's population is increasing. METRO ridership breaks new records every year. The streets are teeming with people like never before. We would expect that as the number of pedestrians increase, so would the number of fatalities.

I'm all for measures to make the city safer for pedestrians. DDOT has a nifty web site with their pedestrian master plan which actually looks pretty well thought out and involves updating the infrastructure in problem areas with fancy crosswalks, special signals, and so forth. This is all good. Let's have at it. But the crossing guard thing is out of control. They don't know what they are doing, they aren't helping things, and they might just get themselves or someone else killed as a result.

No comments: