Pedestrians: Look before you step

Melissa Preddy
Car Culture

Back-to-school is upon us and with it, more pedestrian traffic, everywhere from suburban side streets to the main drags in college towns.

Already signs with slogans such as “Drive like your kids live here!” are sprouting in my neighborhood and I’ve been noticing more of those little day-glo yellow lawn figures that say “slow” and hold out orange traffic flags as a caution.

If you ever wondered, they are called Kid Alert and sell for $25-$50 at big-box retailers and online In fact, there seems to be quite a thriving industry of eye-catching signage warning drivers to watch out for children.

My question would be, why are the kids in the road to begin with? And it’s not just kids, who perhaps haven’t fully developed their self-preservation instincts yet. Individuals of all ages are traipsing in and out of the paths of vehicles with barely a pause, it seems. Obviously the person driving the multi-ton machine bears a lot of responsibility to avoid running over people. But some of the onus has to be on the pedestrians and that’s what I’m not seeing lately.

Growing up, I was drilled to “stop, look and listen” at every intersection. Not just where major roadways meet, but even crossing driveways on suburban sidewalks, one looked to right and left. It’s a habit so ingrained in me I can barely pass my own garage without pause.

What happened to that training? In little more than a century of autos we have gone from no rules to sensible rules back to apparently no sense of responsibility on the part of the person on foot.

Pedestrians today seem to have a heck of a lot of faith that their right-of-way will protect them. In recent weeks I’ve lost count of the number of people who have stepped out blithely into motorized traffic, apparently secure that all will halt before them. Strollers, chit-chatters, phone-starers, you name it — they don’t even look straight ahead let alone side to side. Even early in the morning when drivers are half-blinded by the rising sun, joggers and early-bird walkers don’t seem to realize how invisible that makes them.

Josh DeBruyn, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the Michigan Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation planning, puts it a bit more tactfully.

“It does seem that pedestrian awareness has gone down,” he said. “I see the same thing — lots of people who seem to be more in tune with their social media and smartphone than with their surroundings. They have their heads down and assume you are going to stop for them. It’s hard for me to understand.”

Whatever the root cause, car/pedestrian encounters are on the rise in Michigan, DeBruyn said, up from 2,179 in 2010 to 2,354 in 2015. That’s not necessarily deaths or critical injuries, just any incident where cars and people on foot interacted in some way that resulted in a police report. Still, that’s more than six people a day.

Interestingly, DeBruyn said, “my son is 8 years old and has yet to come home from school and tell me he has learned about road safety. Of course I am teaching him, but I’m not sure it is being taught in school like it used to be.”

The Secretary of State’s office has posted some basics (search “pedestrian and bicycle safety” on including one that I think should be elementary: Try to make eye contact with drivers before crossing in front of them, and don’t assume that because you can see them, they can see you.

Be alert, don’t rely solely on traffic signals and be vigilant when crossing in front of even parked vehicles. As one who nearly backed over two little girls in a supermarket parking lot because they ran out behind my in-motion vehicle (their Dad was on his phone), I heartily agree.

When people are actually in the crosswalks, of course drivers should yield, DeBruyn said. But, he added, “The rules for pedestrians have not changed from many years back: ‘Pedestrians shall not step into a road until it is safe for them to do so.’”

I think that’s a sensible standard and indeed would even welcome a hefty speed bump on my street, to rein in careless drivers. But — no pun intended — pedestrian safety is a two-way street. Those on foot need to do their part as well.

Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via