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.