Ask my wife what my least favorite commercial is and she will unwaveringly tell you it’s the New York State Department of Health, Department of Transportation and the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee’s “See and Be Seen” commercials like the one below. In a majority of these videos, NYS places the responsibility of pedestrian safety on the pedestrian as a sort of “protect yourself against the road conditions that might kill you” message.
Did you watch the cinematic brilliance? Good, hope the popcorn was better than the film.
Joking aside, let’s unpack this clip. First off, it’s important to note that NOTHING the pedestrians in this video are doing is illegal. They are walking outside of the roadway, using crosswalks, and acting like responsible citizens. In fact, the worst indictment of this video is the lack of any real pedestrian infrastructure, which is too often the norm in our rural and suburban areas.
Sure, the woman in black is harder to see than the other two, but wearing black is not illegal. In this video in which the pedestrians stay outside of the white line, the only way in which the woman in black would be put in harms way is if a car illegally drifted off the road and hit her. In this case, the driver should be at fault for veering off the roadway, not the pedestrian for wearing black… that being said, what “responsible” party is far more likely to lose their life if this scenario occurs?
I’m gonna go ahead and say that New York State would come back with a statement something like “we all have a responsibility in preserving public health and safety, and these are practical steps that pedestrians can take to ensure they are doing their part.” I know this because if I was in politics and wanted to save more lives while pissing off the fewest number of people, this is the statement I would make. In any context, it’s far easier and usually far more cost effective to place the onus of safety on the victim than it is on the problem itself.
Someone might point out that New York State and other agencies spend tremendously on campaigns that urge motorists to drive sober and drive undistracted, but state-run ads like the one above lead to Confirmation Bias, or the ignoring of facts in an effort to seek information that supports drivers’ point of view. Pair this with the fact that 80% of drivers believe they are better than average, and you end up with 8 out of 10 Americans who believe they are good drivers and pedestrians are the ones at fault.
What this message actually does is continue to empower drivers to do as they please and remain blameless with regard to pedestrian and cyclist safety. It furthers the narrative that the most vulnerable users of our right-of-ways are also the most blamed, most marginalized and most scrutinized. Though the average automobile weighs more than two tons and is capable of over 100mph, the pedestrian is tasked with navigating the unchecked and horrifyingly unsafe environment this creates.
A distinction must be made between the message of how to protect yourself as a pedestrian or cyclist and how to solve the real problem. Asking pedestrians and cyclists to take precautions to protect themselves without placing the enormity of responsibility on drivers who pilot vehicles that are hundreds of times the weight and size is absolutely ridiculous, and tantamount to victim shaming. As a pedestrian and a cyclist, I take various precautions to protect myself, but I refuse to accept this as the solution to a far greater mobility, safety and equity conversation.
The message of self-preservation for pedestrians and cyclist on our roadways should NEVER be confused with solutions that create a safer environment for everyone. This means the limiting of driver speeds through infrastructure and increasing driver accountability on our right-of-ways. But New York State’s proliferation of the above message sidesteps the real public safety issue… that the most privileged form of mobility is the one that is absolved of any responsibility with regard to public safety. The media continues to send the message that drivers may do whatever they please, and it is on pedestrians and cyclists to protect themselves from whatever this means.