A couple of days before the solstice, I walked to the store about 5:30 in the evening. We’re at 9.5-hour days here, so it was already dark. My partner had found a long string LED (probably designed for wrapping around a bicycle), so I was carrying it to be more visible.
I always walk to the store, which is about 12 blocks away. I go several times a week and space out my shopping so that I don’t carry too much at a time. It’s a way to combine errands with exercise.
When I reach Piedmont Avenue, which is a heavy pedestrian area, I usually cross at a specific crosswalk across from Peet’s Coffee. There’s no light there, but it gets a lot of regular use.
So I get to the intersection, look to my left and see a car slow down and stop for me. I start crossing. Just as I reach the middle of the street and am turning to look right to make sure the cars coming the other direction are also stopping, I hear someone gun a motor.
So I stop and look left as well as right. A car comes barreling around the ones that stopped for the crosswalk, zooms right past me, and makes an immediate turn onto a small residential street.
If I hadn’t stopped, the car would have hit me. If anyone had been in the crosswalk on the other street, it would have hit them, too.
I can’t tell you how glad I am that I got my ears cleaned out the other day so that I heard the engine roar. I also can’t tell you how glad I am that I know to pick up clues like that and act on them even if I’m not sure what’s going on.
I was angry, but I wasn’t hurt (or worse).
This, my dear friends, is why I consider paying attention to be the most important skill in self defense. Because while everyone worries about the bad guy who might jump you, the truth is that accidents are a great deal more common than assaults.
And the same skills that protect you from bad guys protect you from accidents.
7,485 pedestrians were killed by cars in the United States in 2021 — the highest number in 40 years. Here in our area, one of them was a county supervisor killed while out walking her dog during the daytime in an area one might think of as pedestrian friendly.
The truth is, even places with a high walkability score (I live in one) are not really pedestrian friendly. Every time I walk to the store I cross an even bigger street — Broadway — where I must click on a button to get a walk signal. Sometimes the button doesn’t work, which means that a green light doesn’t last long enough for you to walk across four lanes of traffic (plus two parking lanes).
Also, people making left turns onto Broadway don’t always pay attention. One day I saw a driver almost hit someone who was using a walker. I screamed at the driver.
That was a case of a driver not paying attention. The person who nearly hit me this week was worse than that — they decided they were entitled to keep moving fast because they were in a car.
All pedestrians need to pay attention, not just when it gets dark early, but all the time. While this is unfair, it is necessary.
A lot of drivers on the residential streets where I live don’t seem to understand the meaning of a red octagonal sign with the letters “STOP” painted on it. Some glide through in a rolling stop; some never even slow down.
The problem is that about a hundred years ago our society decided — with a push from car manufacturers — to privilege cars over other forms of transportation. Trolleys and light rail were phased out. Jaywalking laws were put in place.
And then we built more highways and more streets designed for fast traffic. Everyone knows of places where you have to walk several blocks to find a safe place to cross a large street.
Even here in California, where the law is very specific about yielding to pedestrians, lots of drivers don’t pay attention. If you’ve ever taken the written test for a driver’s license here — and I have to take it every five years because I’m old — you will have several questions about pedestrian rights.
But some drivers still refuse to yield.
Now it happens that I also drive. In fact, I’ve been driving since I was 14. I know how much fun it is to drive fast, especially some place where you’re not supposed to.
I also know how hard it is to pay attention to everything you need to see and hear when you’re driving, and that’s even when you don’t have a bunch of distracting things in the car like your phone beeping or a dog deciding it needs to move around or kids squabbling.
When I drive up to Telegraph Avenue from my place, I come first to a crosswalk, where I stop and look carefully, and then to a bike lane, where I also stop and look carefully. Then I edge into the bike lane so I can see the cars and figure out when I can enter the traffic pattern. It’s tricky and we just have a two-way stop there, so the bikes and cars aren’t planning to stop (and the pedestrians shouldn’t have to).
It takes a lot of attention to drive safely. Most drivers screw up fairly often.
We need to change the rules. Cars should be forced to drive very slowly in most areas. The system should put pedestrian and bicyclist safety above moving cars quickly.
Streets like Piedmont Avenue, where I nearly got hit, should be set aside mostly for pedestrians, with access for delivery trucks (lots of businesses there) and those with disabilities. Larger streets should have lights that let all pedestrians cross at once. Stop sign violations should be strictly enforced.
Cars have only been around for a little over a century, yet in that time they have come to dominate so much of the world. Changing the rules so that they don’t have preference would be a small step toward taking our society back for people.