Despite my best intentions, I found myself embroiled in some municipal politics a few weeks ago when I wrote a column on the complicated interplay of motorists and pedestrians for the March issue of the Princeton Echo, one of U.S. 1’s sister publications.
As a person who almost every day both walks the streets of downtown Princeton and also drives over those same streets, I felt compelled to say a few words in defense of pedestrians and also in defense of motorists, who are not always at fault in car-pedestrian collisions and who are not always served well by the actions of some pedestrians.
I called out pedestrians who, engrossed in their cell phone conversations, are oblivious to the traffic conditions around them. I took issue with pedestrians who ignore the walk/don’t walk signals at intersections such as Nassau and Vandeventer and Nassau and Witherspoon, where “left turn only” arrows for motorists depend on pedestrians obeying the “walk/don’t walk” signals.
And I worried in print about pedestrians who knew they were entitled to cross a busy street at any crosswalk (marked or unmarked at an intersection), and put the burden on the motorist to stop and let them pass. I could not disagree with the legal argument, but I did have a practical concern: What if a motorist doesn’t see that pedestrian, possibly dressed in a dark outfit in the evening light? What if the motorist is temporarily distracted by a car door opening into the traffic lane?
Of course, if either of these cases above occurs and a pedestrian gets hurt by a motorist, it is still the motorist’s fault. But from the pedestrian’s point of view, that seems like a very costly way to make the point.
So I “sounded off,” as the new column in the monthly Princeton Echo is called. Within a few days I was “called out” by some zealous pedestrians, who posted online comments that disparaged my argument. Eventually the thoughts coalesced in a rebuttal column, published in the April issue of the Echo, by David Keddie.
Keddie, a founder of Walkable Princeton, an organization that advocates for a pedestrian and bikefriendly approach to planning, is an unapologetic pedestrian. “I often find visitors to Princeton shocked to see me walk out boldly into a crosswalk on Nassau Street with full confidence that oncoming traffic will stop,” he wrote in his Echo column. “To tourists, Princeton pedestrians must seem a bit like Moses and Nassau Street the Red Sea, parted merely by stepping into a crosswalk without so much as a honk in protest.”
No argument there: It is a miraculous thing — motorists pulling up at a crosswalk and letting pedestrians amble across. When I’m the motorist I often use the moment to savor the sweet balance of the arrangement, especially if the pedestrian appears to be a student. I’m letting them have the right of way. And in a few years they will be helping pay my Social Security.
There is just that nagging concern: What if that equation happens to be slightly off at the moment a pedestrian steps into the crosswalk? What if a driver and a pedestrian accidentally become competitors for the same space?
A few days after Keddie’s exaltation of pedestrian rights appeared in the Echo, on April 8 at around 9:30 p.m., that motorist-pedestrian equation didn’t quite work out on Washington Road, at the crosswalk just south of Ivy Lane. A graduate student in chemistry was struck by a car being driven by a 20-year-old Princeton resident. The pedestrian suffered critical, but not life-threatening injuries.
From the initial police report it sounded like another case of one of Keddie’s “intimidating” motorists failing to respect the pedestrian’s right of passage in the crosswalk.
But — just to restate my credentials here — I know that crosswalk. I have driven up and down Washington Road many times, and stopped many a time for young pedestrians (and future taxpayers). And I have walked across the road at that point many times. I took note of the installation of blinking lights embedded in the pavement that could be triggered by pedestrians waiting to cross. I took note a few years later when those same lights were removed for reasons that I was never able to determine.
I have even written about the Washington Road crosswalks several times in this space. It is a crucible of motorist-pedestrian interaction, a perfect example of the challenges for city planners as they strive to create a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood that is also accessible by car.
I figured it might be a little more complicated than the initial report stated. Sure enough, on April 9 the Daily Princetonian did what none of the other papers in town did. It did some additional reporting. The Prince talked to the graduate student, by then recovering in the hospital. Recalling the moment just before she was struck, she said, “I think on one side of the road a car had stopped for me, and so I entered the crosswalk and it seemed clear, but the other car didn’t stop.”
If the graduate student’s memory is accurate, the accident is the kind that ought to be the worst nightmare for any conscientious driver. You stop for the pedestrian standing at the crosswalk. The pedestrian begins to cross, but fails to notice the car coming in the opposite direction.
We drivers used to be taught about “defensive driving.” Even though the car approaching from the side street has to stop at the stop sign, be ready to hit the brakes in case the driver doesn’t. Even though the light turns green, look both ways to make the sure other cars have obeyed their stop sign.
In this day of multiple driver distractions — busy roads, cell phones ringing, video displays on the dashboard monitoring everything from cabin temperature to choice of radio service — it may be time for pedestrians to practice defensive walking. Walk against traffic, wear bright colors at night, and look both ways before you step out into traffic. If that’s too much then you could try another approach: Call out to Moses, and ask him to do his thing.