Monday, February 24, 2014

Drivers. Pedestrians. A Frothing Rant.

The most amazing thing I've seen in some time appeared in the Calgary Herald this morning. I looked at it, and was horrified. My first question was, why do we let this go on?

Let me backtrack. An engineer named Dustin Jones plotted 16 years of automobile / pedestrian collisions from police data onto a map, and released it. Here's a link to it. Take a moment to look, it's worth it even if you don't live in Calgary. I'll guarantee that if the same thing was done to your town or city, it would look much the same.

Every one of those dots is pain and suffering, and there are a lot of dots. There are so many he ran out of dots, and started to use flags. The purple ones represent between 30 and 50 collisions AT ONE INTERSECTION!

I love this guy! He's taken reams and reams of data that have been ignored by everyone who knew about it. An abstract report giving these numbers doesn't mean anything to anybody, except maybe a traffic engineer. Even a graph wouldn't really do much. But put it on a map, and holy cow. A data visualization like this will smack you upside the head. Nobody can ignore it.

If you live in Calgary, find your house on this map. How far away is the nearest dot? How often have you walked past that intersection? What about where you work, and however much of the route there you walk? What about the route your children take to school? Where's the nearest dot or flag? Downtown is awash with them. My house is a corner lot, and there is no dot there, but the next intersection in each direction has a dot. No matter where I park for work, I can't help but walk past a dot or flag.

In the print issue of the Herald there was a letter to the editor by an idiot saying that drivers are pure as driven snow and it's those darn pedestrians flinging themselves under the wheels of vehicles. Bah! There is no shortage of pedestrians that do stupid things in traffic. I've seen them. But it's drivers too, big time. I've  nearly been struck by cars several times, and only paying vigilant attention gave me time to dodge out of the way, and once I was on the sidewalk. Eventually, as I get older and slower, I fear one of them will get me. I'd like to change the system now.

My only real beef with Mr. Jones is that he calls them accidents. THEY ARE NOT! Most emphatically, they are not accidents, and we have to stop calling them that. They are collisions. They have a cause. The choices are driver error, or pedestrian error, but one of them made a mistake. Maybe, rarely, both of them. I tend to believe drivers make the most mistakes for two reasons. Pedestrians are the one with skin in the game, and walking downtown I see a lot more driver error. We would need to put a lot more investigation into these collisions to truly determine who is at fault. Maybe we should.

A nice to have on this map would be an additional flag to note where the deaths have occurred, but maybe that's just morbid. The data is there if you click on the little dots. Allow me to digress a moment. This is a wonderful example of the power of data. I totally applaud Mr. Jones. This is why information should be free. I never would have thought of mapping the data like this, and I'm glad he did. I'd like to see more data freed up, and see what the ingenuity of other people will produce. There is no way that this will not impel changes in how we deal with such collisions.

I couldn't even begin to count the cost to our health system for all those people and their families represented by all those dots. It has to be substantial, and so preventable. Even a no injury collision means that someone probably at least went to a walk in clinic or their family doctor just to be sure. Many would have visited the emergency department, taking up untold and increasingly scarce medical resources. Think of the time taken by emergency services such as police and fire, and by the City road crews. Think of all the time taken off productive work to get medical attention and followup therapy of various kinds. Think of all those other people tied up in traffic because of the collision.

Now, the hard question. What do we do about it? My first thought is to get some skin in the game for drivers. Any collision with a pedestrian should mean the driver is required to attend a weekend advanced driver training school and some (100 hours?) of community service dealing with survivors of auto collisions. It goes on their record. Next time, if there is a next time, there's a formal investigation of the collision, with a big fine and points that would lead to an insurance increase. I hesitate to use the term three strikes and you're out, but it's tempting. More than a small number of collisions with anything (other vehicles, pedestrians, stationary objects) is a demonstration of fundamental driver incompetence. Such people should lose their driver's license permanently.

Being in a car is one of the most dangerous things a North American does. All of us are part of the problem. Are you still sneaking a look at that text that just arrived, and it only needs a word or two to respond so you do? THEN YOU'RE A FUCKING IDIOT! How many close calls have you had recently? Close calls are an indication of a problem; man up and deal with it. Do you distract the driver, or let yourself get distracted by anything other than the task at hand? Do you think you're the most important person on the road? Grow up. Safety on the roads is shared. We're only as safe as the least safe of us.

Dash cams are cheap now. Maybe a driver involved in a pedestrian collision should be required to buy, install, and use a dash cam. They aren't expensive. Having it off during a next collision should be treated as a crime itself. If the record shows that semi-mythical pedestrian flinging themselves under their wheels, then the driver is off the hook.

Don't even get me started on impaired drivers. My solution involves heads on pikes. You only think I'm kidding.

And pedestrians, I'm looking at you too. There cannot be anything on your mobile phone that is as essential to your well being as looking both ways before setting foot in the street.

For those that didn't click on the link, this is a partial screen shot of what you missed, showing downtown and part of International Ave.

In other news, I'm feeling much better. Well enough to go to work and be productive, but not quite well enough for a workout yet. Not going to push it.

Looking for discussion here. What do you think we should do to prevent any more dots from going on the map?


  1. We have the same issue here - well, in Halifax - of drivers and pedestrians coming to odds. As a very safe driver (no tickets - ever, no 'accidents' - ever), I am always looking here and there, watching and driving defensively. A lot of the drivers I see doing crazy things are driving offensively, as if they own the road and everyone better get out of the way. Texting, phones, eating, shaving (yes, saw a man shaving as we drove through Toronto on the 401), reading - the car is for driving, people! And I have to say the pedestrians are a little nuts, too - pushing the button for a crosswalk and then stepping off without looking as if the flashing lights will cause all vehicles to stop. Or not pushing the button - expecting cars to stop! Oh, you've got me riled now, Keith! As they say, it's a two way street and both drivers and pedestrians have to be aware!

    Good rant. BTW, did you know in Edmonton they post black triangles at intersections where there has been a death (at least they used to). It really gives one pause! Off to check out the map.

    1. Thanks! I haven't been to Edmonton in a while, so I don't know if they are still doing that. I didn't mention driverless cars, but I can't wait for those to become mandatory in cities.

  2. Excellent rant, Keith. I'm sharing. We've got a huge and growing problem here. I'm nearly always the pedestrian and I swear to god, I could run naked into the crosswalk and jump up and down with burning torches in both hands and some drivers wouldn't notice me - they are that blind to any and all pedestrians. As a result, I'm getting damned pushy about making them notice. Before taking a step onto the street, I wave my arms madly and assume an aggressive pre-launch stance intended to communicate that I'm serious about using the god-damned crosswalk. BTW, be especially careful in Bridgewater when you're visiting. It seems 75% of drivers there are determined to take out at least one pedestrian in their lifetimes. Grrrrrrr....

    1. I should add that I also make a point of thanking the drivers who stop - particularly those who stop without making me do my usual dance to get their attention.

    2. You had me at running naked into the crosswalk! :-)
      You'll have to have someone do a photo of you in pre-launch stance, I'm dying to see it.

    3. Hahahah! You'll be waiting awhile, Keith.

    4. Within the last few years the city has installed countdown timers on the majority of the pedestrian walk signals. I believe the original intent was that if the countdown was on that pedestrians should not enter the crosswalk. It seems that it serves more as an inspiration to hurry up and dash across the intersection with three seconds left. I have triple checked before making a turn and then all of a sudden there is a pedestrian darting in front of my car. If I'm crossing I often try and make sure that I can catch the driver's eye and give a little wave if I'm concerned they won't see me. If I don't get a response, don't go.

      What I'd like to see downtown would be more advance turn lights for drivers. I would also like to see more of the intersections they have set up at Eau Claire where the lights go in three phases. First cars north-south, then cars east-west, then all pedestrians. That being said we should always keep our wits about us, as drivers and as pedestrians. Don't dash through that intersection on the countdown. Don't pay more attention to your phone. Check all directions for pedestrians near a crosswalk. If you are out in the dark wear reflective gear. Don't assume drivers will stop for you.

  3. Good points Leana! I'd read a report a little while ago that traffic engineers were suprised to see that drivers sped up when they saw the countdown starting on the crosswalk signal. They were looking at ways to hide it from the drivers. The 'scramble' intersections take a bit of getting used to, but I like them.

  4. I live in San Diego and it seems each week I hear on the local news of a pedestrian being hit and killed while crossing the street while using a cell phone. Whoa!!! As my Dad used to say it doesn't matter who has the right of way if you are dead. Drivers need to slow down but pedestrians need to be very careful when crossing the street. Don't assume that you have been seen.

    1. Thanks for commenting Jackie! We tell bike riders to make eye contact with drivers, and pedestrians ought to do the same thing. I've had drivers stop abruptly when they realize I'm looking right at them.


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