Why are some Seattle pedestrians so reckless in crosswalks?

Pedestrians in a Seattle crosswalk (via Seattle.gov)

Recently, I saved two people in Seattle from death or serious injury. The more interesting issue to me is why I had to.

Returning home on a Saturday afternoon after refereeing youth soccer, I was cutting through downtown Seattle. Driving north in Belltown in the right lane on Western Avenue, I stopped behind a small truck that itself had stopped at what I call a conditional stop sign, which requires a halt only if pedestrians are waiting to cross. I could see a 30-something couple stepping off the east curb into the marked crosswalk and, eyes forward, striding briskly across the street.

But in my driver-side rear-view mirror I saw a vehicle racing up from behind me in the lane to my left, not slowing down at all. I immediately grasped that car wasn’t going to stop in time, if at all. The couple crossing the street had disappeared in front of the truck in front of me, meaning they would emerge in the left lane just in time to get hit and killed or at the least badly hurt.

So I did the only thing I could. I leaned on my horn and held it. Although I was a car back, the long, loud obnoxious blast had the desired effect. The startled couple paused. The offending car whizzed past us all on the left, running the soft stop but hitting no one. I single-handedly freed up two gurneys in the emergency room at Harborview Medical Center.

But the incident got me to thinking about other near-misses I’ve seen involving vehicles and pedestrians trying to get across streets. By personal observation, of all the places I’ve lived or worked before becoming New To Seattle–and that’s a bunch–Seattle takes the cake when it comes to persons crossing streets on foot with so little seeming regard for their personal safety. I’m thinking that some of this apparently blithe attitude has political roots.

According to the latest statistics I can find, people in Seattle are nearly four times more likely than the national average to be hit while they’re on foot. I kid you not. According to the 2010 Seattle traffic report, 529 persons were in accidents with vehicles. In a city of 609,000, that’s one pedestrian accident for every 1,150 residents. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says 70,000 pedestrians were hit by a vehicle in 2010. In a country of 300 million, that works out to one accident for every 4,286 persons. In New York City–crowded and full of tourists like Seattle–the rate over time was even less: one pedestrian accident per year for every 5,571 residents.

Now I can’t swear that all these stats use the same definitions and are strictly comparable. Nor can I show–although I suspect–the bulk of all pedestrian accidents happen at or very near intersections. But even allowing for a large margin of error, the streets of Seattle seem far more dangerous to pedestrians than most others.

Some possible reasons come to mind. Seattle roadways are wet a lot more of the time, making it harder for vehicles to stop on sudden short notice. According to Allstate, some of America’s worst drivers. Maybe better reporting of accidents.  One factor I consider irrelevant: The high number of jaywalking tickets written by Seattle police–sometimes rather roughly. In my observation in Seattle, jaywalkers–pedestrians crossing streets in the middle of a block–are extremely careful about keeping a sharp watch for oncoming traffic.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Under Washington State law, pedestrians have the right of way at crosswalks and intersections, whether or not marked. You can even say I’m blaming the victims (or, if they’re lucky, the near-victims). But I have witnessed just too many occasions in which someone on foot started crossing a street without looking left and right, as their parents undoubtedly told them in their formative years. Perish the thought that they keep a sharp look-out after they start crossing. Having the law on one’s side–and the legal doctrines of contributory negligence, last clear chance and assumption of the risk chip into that–is small solace for a pedestrian being wheeled into surgery–or worse.

Here’s my big theory. At any given moment a certain number of Seattle pedestrians who fancy themselves green think they are making some kind of anti-car, carbon emission or global warming political statement by setting out in a crosswalk uncontrolled by a light without bothering to look both ways. I can’t read minds. But I see the manifestation of otherwise inexplicably close calls all the time, especially in neighborhoods with reputations for environmental activism like Queen Anne Hill, Capitol Hill, Fremont and Belltown.

In the typical cases I have witnessed, a person briskly walking along the sidewalk comes to an intersection without a light, juts the head up or tucks it down, and then barrels across the street with nary a peek to either side as a vehicle bears down. In famously unchurched Seattle, belief in protection from above probably can be ruled out. And recreational marijuana use doesn’t become legal until December 6.

I suppose extreme carelessness or anger at the world are possible. But such pedestrian conduct certainly looks to me like acts in furtherance of a political cause. Even along Western Avenue in Belltown.

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Why are some Seattle pedestrians so reckless in crosswalks? — 16 Comments

  1. Pingback: Seattle pedestrians remain an impetuous lot - New To Seattle

  2. I’ve been up here for 10 years and still can’t believe it. It’s rare for any pedestrian here to even attempt to make eye contact with drivers. They just head down walk right into traffic I’d say 80% of the time. I feel sorry for the poor schmuck that runs one over completely on accident, the walkers are willfully negligent. I think it stems from over coddling. They have to stop traffic for school buses else the northwest kids will leap into the street like confused deer or something. Anything but teaching them how to cross a street safely. Glad I’m not the only one that noticed it.

  3. It seems clear from these remarks and my observations that the free walk laws here in Seattle promote carelessness and blame free acts by pedestrians, for which drivers most often get the blame. I suggest you go to Boston and casually cross against the light in mid block with, amongst others, local Boston policemen. Can you find comparable statistics Seattle vs Boston?

  4. Witnessed a collision with pedestrian and car at an intersection in Belltown on Friday evening. Both entered the intersection against their respective light. One running, the other stepping on the accelerator. No winners. Ugly scene.

  5. Pingback: Seattle pedestrians sometimes forget to push crosswalk button | New To Seattle

  6. I always thought Seattlites were well behaved pedestrians because we usually wait for the light. But you’re right, people don’t look. And they wear black at night and don’t look and are dang lucky they are alive. They walk behind backing cars assuming they’re seen, really drives me nuts. I’m a native and I can’t explain the behavior because I was not taught that way, nor do I ever cross without looking. Maybe they’re transplants? LA?

  7. In the last two nights I’ve seen parents dragging their kids in front of cars to cross the street, so apparently it’s taught here at an early age.

    • I have seen parents dragging their kids across on a red light or jay walking and I find it appalling. Unfortunately, I’ve seen it happen everywhere including other states. No one seems to care to follow any kind of laws or rules.

  8. I thought about mentioning South Lake Union in my post, because I, too, have witnessed considerable wild pedestrian conduct there. But unlike Capitol Hill, Queen Anne or Belltown, what I see in South Lake Union doesn’t strike me as having political origins. I think you had it right when you wrote, “Maybe they are not thinking at all.”

  9. Check out SLU around Amazon if you want to see pedestrians (& bicyclists) just step out into the street. I work there & drive every day. I keep a very alert eye out but some days….WOW! I’m terrified I’m going to hit someone some day because they just stepped off the curb in front of me without looking. They come out from between cars, trucks, buses all parked in that area & don’t even look then. What are they thinking – or maybe they are not thinking at all. It’s particularly bad at this time of year since there is so little daylight & so much rain – and so many black clothes – even on bicyclists.

  10. Seattleites flown upon car ownership and worships pedestrians. They are superior to cars, so it’s the cars responsibility to watch out, not theirs. And have you noticed how sloooowwwwlly they cross the street. Once they have an upper hand over a car they like to flaunt it.

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