Why is it acceptable that walking is dangerous?
Sarasota, where I live and walk, is a pleasant place, but ranks tenth among American municipalities in pedestrian deaths. That’s not unusual, for eight of the top ten most dangerous cities for walkers are in Florida. Every work day I walk to my office located two blocks from the main regional hospital and across the street from Sarasota High School. Four times a day I cross Route 41, the Tamiami (Tampa-Miami) Trail, the traffic lifeblood of this small city.
Many of my colleagues, friends, and patients tell me not to walk. “It’s too dangerous, they’ll mow you down.”
“Walking across the street to the hospital?” I say.
At each of the intersections there are buttons that reliably turn on walk signs. Yellow signs next to the stop lights shout “yield to pedestrians.” When I walk to work, the majority of pedestrians are young kids going to school.
Drivers routinely ignore those signs, especially when making right turns.
It’s not that they don’t see us. I wear a wide brimmed hat to avoid skin cancer and to shield my eyes. The hat is sufficiently noticeable that dogs bark a hundred feet away and people declare “I saw you walking with your hat” with the amazement they’d describe a public sex act. Even someone with macular degeneration or texting should notice this salient moving object.
Drivers keep whizzing right by.
Last week I was walking back from work on a particularly gorgeous day, with a clear cerulean sky and a subtropical breeze softly caressing the skin. On my side of the street was a young woman in her twenties with a frisky brown and white dog, on the other a slender teenager. We waited for the sign to turn white telling us it was “safe” to walk.
A fellow in a large truck thought otherwise.
Maybe it was the two young folks and the dog trying to cross, but I finally get fed up. I put my hands up, shouted stop, and told the driver we had the right to walk across the street.
He started laughing. Uncontrollably. The high pitched laughter caused most of the other motorists to take notice. He shouted how funny the whole thing was.
Is it funny to mow down pedestrians? He pushed forward.
I didn’t move. The woman with the dog thanked me, and started going through the walkway. The man kept laughing. I walked across the street.
As he shot by the driver shouted “God loves you, but I don’t.”
His attitude says a lot about public attitudes to public safety and health.
A Matter of Mortality
Police have a tough job. Enforcing the law is often not welcomed. With murders, terrorist attacks, rapes and robberies foremost in the public mind, enforcing pedestrian laws often does not rank high on their priority list.
In 28 years of living in Sarasota, I have never seen police enforce a driving violation regarding pedestrians. Lawyer friends tell “they will – after you’re hit.”
That’s too late.
As of a few years ago there were about 11,000 gun related homicides in the U.S. (far more people die from gun suicides than gun murders.) At the same time, about 6,000 pedestrians were killed by drivers.
The primary cause of these deaths was speeding. That’s one of the reasons European countries have urban speed limits set at 30 mph or lower – above that speed pedestrians hit by cars are far more likely to die. The second highest cause of pedestrian deaths was failure to yield.
The number of pedestrian deaths is only a bit more than half the number of gun homicides. Yet that vastly underestimates the number of deaths related to inability to safely walk.
Walking is one of the main ways to decrease cardiovascular deaths. In studies in Britain, having green space to walk cuts the heart attack rates about 30-50% minimum. In America, 610,000 die of cardiovascular disease. Of these, 370,000 succumb to coronary disease.
In a nation where obesity is reaching new highs, we will not easily cut cardiovascular deaths if people are scared to walk. Even if increased walking cut cardiovascular death rates by a miniscule one percent, pedestrian deaths would then exceed gun homicides. The true number of prevented deaths would be much, much higher.
The Advantages of Walking
People walk for more reasons than getting to school or work. They walk to improve their mood. They walk to control weight. They walk to improve their immunity – walkers get less colds and less severe ones. They walk for pleasure. They walk for social reasons, to see neighbors and friends. They walk to look and feel younger. They walk to prevent Alzheimer’s death. Some walk, like I do, to improve their natural biological intelligence, to make their bodies more resilient and healthy.
There should be a right to walk.
The police feel overwhelmed now, and for the foreseeable future. There will not be many calls for officers to enforce pedestrian laws. Yet unenforced laws are routinely violated.
So we can let technology do the work. If drivers zooming through pedestrian walkways with flashing walk and “yield to pedestrian” signs are caught on videocams and fined, they will change their ways. And if they do, as occurs in cities like NY, their kids will be emboldened to walk to school and visit friends. Middle aged folks may ditch cars formerly used to drive 200 yards to a store. Dogs and their owners will enjoy the smells of urban streets, and people will meet neighbors they never knew existed. The whole population might get thinner, more social, healthier.
Guns significantly impact public safety and health. So does safely walking across the street.