Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Confession

I consider myself (this is not the confession) a pretty good driver. I hang out in the slow lane on the freeway, come to a complete stop at stop signs, have an only-normal-for-geeky-folk understanding of the California Vehicle Code, and above all I carefully yield to pedestrians in crosswalks...or do I?

After watching footage of a crosswalk sting in Sacramento (posted here on Streetsblog), I realized (this is the confession) I hadn't the slightest idea what "yielding to pedestrians" really meant. Had I been doing it wrong all these years? In an effort to alleviate my guilt--and perhaps bring a little enlightenment to others confused by this question--I did some research.

First, the law itself: California Vehicle Code 21950 states that "The driver of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within any marked crosswalk or within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection."

People v. McLachlan (1939) clarifies that "yielding" doesn't necessarily mean stopping any time a pedestrian has a toe inside the crosswalk, "...it is clear that when a pedestrian crossing a roadway in a crosswalk is so far from the path of an approaching automobile and proceeding in such a manner that no interference between them is reasonably to be expected, the driver of the automobile need not wait for it to develop."

Moreover, once a pedestrian is walking away from a driver, the yielding point is moot, "It is equally clear that a driver, after having allowed a pedestrian to proceed undisturbed and unhurried in front of him and to reach a place safely out of the way of his automobile, with no apparent further danger of conflict between them, may proceed."

Just how far out of danger must pedestrians be before a vehicle can legally proceed through the crosswalk? People v. Hahn (1950) cautions that, "[the pedestrian's] right of way is not to be measured in fractions of an inch nor tested by split seconds. He is entitled not to just as much space as his body, clothes and buttons require, but to as much as will afford him a safe passage."

In other words, it might be okay to drive through a crosswalk if you give pedestrians ample berth--but whooshing past pedestrians so closely that their nosehairs flutter in the breeze isn't kosher. When in doubt, I suggest measuring according to this handy rule of thumb from the Hahn case, "The pedestrian's heart, as well as his body, should be free from attack."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Pedestrian killed in Woodland Hills

A yet-unidentified pedestrian was killed by the suspect in a police pursuit while crossing Don Pio Drive near Topanga Canyon Boulevard last night, as described in this LA Daily News article. My first thought was that this was simply one of those sad, haphazard incidents that are impossible to prevent, but then I wondered: could there be a way to design our roads or vehicles to keep crashes like this from happening?

Turns out we already have the technology to do this. For example, the newest vehicles equipped with GM's OnStar system feature the Stolen Vehicle Slowdown option. The system gives police officers the ability to bring vehicles to a stop remotely (GPS is used to pinpoint the vehicle location), thus facilitating the capture of theives--and potentially preventing car chases like the one yesterday in Woodland Hills.

Now we just have to convince the public to turn the steering wheel over to Big Brother in an emergency...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Walkability Rocks: An Anecdote

It all started when I decided to walk to the library to return a DVD, thus killing the two proverbial piegons by exercising AND running an errand at the same time (not to mention demonstrating the link between walkable neighborhoods and lower obesity rates).

Had my house key not fallen out of my pocket somewhere along the way, this would have been a brilliant plan.

Happily I realized my key was missing in time to return to the library, where I found no key...but two helpful librarians who let me use their telephone (extra kudos to the Woodland Hills branch staff). After begging my husband to come home early from happy hour and rescue me I walked a block to the drug store to pick up a magazine, which I read contentedly at Starbucks (sorry, no hipster coffee shops--walkable or not, this is still the Valley) until it was time to walk back to my now-unlocked home.

On the way back I imagined what my evening would have been like if I lived in a less walkable neighborhood. I suspect there would have been a lot more frustration and sitting (tremendously bored) on the front step. Granted, walking to the library probably wouldn't have been an option in the first place--but since I've managed to lock myself out many occasions not involving libraries, I argue that the point still stands: walkability makes even the most irritating situations a little more bearable.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Then of course, there's this...

I'm not sure if the idea is to encourage or terrify, but at least it gets kids out on the street.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Unsafe Routes to School

I'm sure someday my children are going to roll their eyes when they hear me say this, but I really did walk uphill both ways to get to school. Every morning, rain or...well, this was Seattle...my friend, her little brother, and I would slither down the two wooded hills behind their house, hop puddles along the main thoroughfare, and then push our way up through another damp, brushy hillside before arriving--a mile later--at school. We were 10, and that 30-minute walk was one of the most fascinating parts of my day.

Apparently if I were to let my kids do that today I would be recklessly endangering their lives--and running the risk of criminal charges, as was the mother in this NY Times article describing current attitudes about walking to school. As the article explains, today's parents are reluctant to allow their children to walk to school (only about 13 percent of kids walk or bike to school on their own), due mainly to safety concerns. Rebellious parents who refuse to chauffer their offspring everywhere face serious social pressure from others who chide them for their thoughtless parenting.

Along with improving infrastructure along main school routes, improving parent attitudes is a major part of encouraing walking in the next generation. It's not enough to just cite the statistics (e.g. there were only 115 abductions by strangers in all of the US last year), schools need to actively engage parents and students in promoting walking and biking. Happily, programs like International Walk to School Day are making it easier for schools to do just that.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Public Safety vs. Public Safety

"A minute is a long time to wait if you're not breathing."

I tried it out while researching this post, and concede that the fire chief who made this comment has a point.

It's a concern that comes up frequently in debates over installing traffic calming devices on streets where high speeds hinder pedestrian safety. Pedestrian advocates argue that slowing down traffic improves walkability and reduces pedestrian injury. Fire departments contend that in a life-threatening emergency every second matters, so it's counterproductive to introduce obstacles to vehicle travel.

So who's right? Good question.

Research on emergency response times has centered on cardiac arrests, as there's reasonable consensus that time is of the essence when your heart has decided to stop beating. In general this research shows that response times under five minutes produce the best results in terms of survival (not to depress you, but this does not necessarily mean the survival rates are high when a victim is reached within the five minute window--just better than they would be otherwise). Many fire departments set a goal of responding to 90 percent of life-threatening calls within five minutes, and the LAFD appeared to be achieving that goal--at least prior to its recent budget cuts.

While there hasn't been much investigation of how traffic calming measures impact emergency response times, the work that is available (summarized in this report by Reid Ewing) suggests that speed humps and traffic circles slow down emergency vehicles by 3-14 seconds per measure. The biggest delays are to the largest vehicles, so an ambulance won't be slowed as much as a ladder truck.

By these estimates, a series of traffic calming measures along an emergency route could conceivably delay responders enough to be problematic--at least for cardiac events. But only if emergency response times were right at the cusp of five minutes, or if vehicles were confronted with a whole slew of traffic calming measures in a row. Given this, it doesn't necessarily follow that all traffic calming is a bad idea; in areas with high pedestrian traffic the benefits of improved pedestrian safety might outweigh the costs of slower response times.

I don't mean to downplay the importance of timely emergency response, but it's important to recognize that rejecting traffic calming measures based simply on blanket assertions instead of case-by-case evaluation could actually harm public safety. I'm hoping decisionmakers are sophisticated enough to recognize this...but I won't hold my breath.