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Pedestrian vs. Automobile: It's a Two-Way Street

Dangerous Encounters Can Be Avoided With a Little Common Sense

March 01, 2000|MICHELLE MALTAIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you've ever come face to face with the bugs on the grille of a sport-utility vehicle, you know well the perils of walking in a world of drivers.

Guerry Pirtle has experienced that view. In early December, while crossing the street outside the West Los Angeles restaurant he manages, Pirtle was grazed by a Ford Explorer. The driver, turning the corner, appeared to be distracted by a conversation on his cell phone.

"He just checked to see that there were no cars coming," Pirtle said. The driver never stopped--talking on the phone or to see what damage his carelessness had caused. Fortunately, Pirtle was not seriously hurt. Not everyone is so lucky.

In 1998, 5,541 pedestrians in Los Angeles County were injured in traffic-related accidents and 200 were killed, according to statistics reported on the California Highway Patrol's Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System. And on Los Angeles roadways alone, nearly 4,800 pedestrians were injured.

In 1997, Los Angeles and Long Beach ranked among the top five of California's 10-biggest cities for total pedestrians injured and killed, as sorted by vehicle miles traveled and by population, said Patricia Mora, Los Angeles County regional coordinator for the Office of Traffic Safety in Sacramento.

Who's to blame? Pedestrians say drivers are too distracted and dangerous. Drivers say pedestrians are too daring and thoughtless.

Officials say both are right--and wrong. Indeed, pedestrians and drivers both need to move cautiously and considerately to avert unnecessary encounters.

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The key fact in all of this, as spelled out in Section 21950 of the California Vehicle Code, is that pedestrians have the right of way when crossing within any marked crosswalk or within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection.

To remind motorists to yield to pedestrians, the Glendale Police Department began a program in 1997 in which plainclothes officers cross at "unprotected" intersections--those without stoplights.

Drivers who do not yield are ticketed by an officer stationed nearby. Of particular concern is the intersection at Garfield and Glendale avenues, said Police Lt. Don Meredith, the city's traffic bureau coordinator.

The stretch of Glendale Avenue from about Doran Street to San Fernando Road can be deceptive to a driver because it appears to be a commercial area. But on nearly every block is an unprotected crosswalk that stretches across four lanes, and thus beyond normal peripheral vision.

And although signs clearly indicate a 25-mph speed limit, most drivers are traveling 35 to 45 mph, making yielding to pedestrians--and crossing safely, from the pedestrian's perspective--that much more difficult, said Sgt. Lewie Guay, the creator of Glendale's program.

"More often than not, [with] people who aren't yielding to pedestrians, speed is involved," he said, noting that his department's undercover stings are intended to return the focus to driving.

The Glendale department conducts these stings about once a month, and credits the operation with helping to reduce the number of pedestrian fatalities to their lowest level in 46 years, Meredith said.

From Glendale's program have sprung similar efforts in more than 30 Southern California cities, as well as in Oregon and Washington state, Guay said.

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Drivers aren't totally to blame, though.

Pedestrians "are responsible for their own safety," said Meredith, who serves on a countywide task force for traffic safety. He urges pedestrians to be aware of their surroundings: "Just because you can see the car doesn't mean the car sees you."

And just as motorists should drive defensively, pedestrians should walk defensively, he said.

Sometimes what fuels the adversarial relationship between car and crosser is that people maintain an entitlement complex--"I own the road"--whether behind the wheel or on foot. The same impatient drivers become defiant pedestrians when they are on foot, and vice versa.

And it's not just daily commuters. Take, for example, the Coachella Valley, where incidents of dangerous driver-pedestrian behavior this season are as common as the "snowbirds" who have flocked there to defrost. Sightseeing pedestrians sometimes take a vacation from their senses, stepping off sidewalks directly into harm's way rather than waiting for the crossing light. Although the pace is a bit more relaxed out there than in the big city, nerves still get frayed, tires still screech and people still get hurt.

Thinking like a driver and paying attention to the flow of traffic are a couple of ways to cross safely and courteously.

For many of us, the car has become an extension of the home and workplace, with related conveniences and challenges. We eat, chat, primp, bop to the beat of some bumping tunes, discipline our children and plan our day while we drive. But whenever we're inside a vehicle, it's important to focus on the road. Our lives and the lives of others depend on it.

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