There has been much heated discussion of street design and laws related to pedestrians and non-motorized traffic in the wake of a recent vehicle-pedestrian crash in Saint Paul that severely injured 11-year-old Bikram Phuyel. Much of this dialogue has been based on misunderstanding or faulty assumptions and has led to unnecessary vitriol and finger pointing. As an organization dedicated to education and advocacy for both cycling and walking as healthy, safe and easy transportation options, BikeMN would like to contribute an informed perspective on this issue.
Pioneer Press contributor Joe Soucheray posited in his November 12th commentary that the incident with Phuyel is evidence that right-of-way laws for pedestrians actually decrease safety and ought therefore to be abolished. An implicit premise in his argument is that motor vehicle drivers either can’t or won’t comply with existing right-of-way laws—and, clearly, this type of driving behavior endangers pedestrians. In the case of Phuyel, the statute in question states: “When any vehicle is stopped at a marked crosswalk or at an intersection with no marked crosswalk to permit a pedestrian to cross the roadway, the driver of any other vehicle approaching from the rear shall not overtake and pass the stopped vehicle” (169.21 Subd. 2 (b)). Based on the driver’s and witnesses’ statements in the police report about this incident, it is apparent that this was exactly the circumstance the led to the tragic crash. This was also the case in BikeMN Executive Director Dorian Grilley’s crash four years ago.
It’s worth clarifying further that this same statute specifies “the driver of a vehicle shall stop to yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within a marked crosswalk or at an intersection with no marked crosswalk.” Some news sources have reported that the victim was not in a crosswalk, when it would have been more accurate to report that there was not a marked crosswalk at the intersection he was attempting to cross. The implication in misstating this is that the pedestrian was crossing against the driver’s right-of-way, although it is clear from the statute that this is not the case.
It is also worth correcting the erroneous belief that crossing at a marked crosswalk rather than an unmarked intersection is always safer. In fact, a report from the Federal Highway Administration found that on busy roads, “having a marked crosswalk alone (without other substantial improvements) is associated with a higher pedestrian crash rate (after controlling for other site factors) compared to an unmarked crosswalk.” The victim-blaming narrative that crossing at an unmarked intersection is more dangerous and violates traffic code is flatly wrong.
In his op-ed, Soucheray correctly pointed out that overall pedestrian fatalities in traffic have steadily declined from a peak in 1937, and he attributed this to improvements in vehicle technology, transportation infrastructure and pedestrian education. Traffic laws, however, were completely dismissed as an explanation for this advance in pedestrian safety. Yet it seems hardly coincidental that the trend toward decreasing fatalities has coincided with the adoption of pedestrian right-of-way laws across the country, beginning in 1944 with the Uniform Vehicle Code. Soucheray’s non-sequitur conclusion was that (“new” and unspecified) pedestrian rights threaten to undermine this long-term trend toward greater safety. BikeMN believes that, on the contrary, the correlation between expanding pedestrian rights and greater safety indicates that these laws have had the intended effect of improved public safety.
The laws of the Motor Vehicle Code recognize differences between different modes of transit on public roadways and aim to codify the rights and duties of each user to maximize safety and use of this public space. Operating a motor vehicle is a privilege with a potential for great damage, and therefore requires specialized training and a high-degree of responsibility. By the same token, pedestrians and other vulnerable users require special legal protections in order to safely share these spaces with others. Laws that recognize these practical realities and clarify responsibilities accordingly make public roadways safer for all users.
You may be surprised to learn that the penalty for hitting a pedestrian, bicyclist or other vulnerable road user—even if you kill or seriously injure them and were ticketed for one or more driving violations—is only a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of a $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail. In many cases, even when there are driving violations and a fatality, only a petty misdemeanor ticket is issued. In some cases no citation is issued at all.
To the extent that existing traffic laws are sound and improve public safety, non-compliance with these laws endangers all users. The cynical argument that drivers of motor vehicles are simply unwilling to comply with pedestrian right-of-way and therefore the code ought to be modified to account for this behavior is illogical and undermines public safety. (A similarly-flawed argument is sometimes made as a justification for increasing speed limits.) Rather than changing successful laws to bring driver behavior into compliance, law enforcement can increase enforcement and penalties for existing laws. BikeMN believes that the penalties for killing or seriously injuring a bicyclist, pedestrian or other vulnerable roadway users while committing multiple driving offenses that add up to careless or reckless driving should be more than a misdemeanor. The aforementioned maximum punishment—especially considering that this maximum sentence is rarely imposed—is insufficient disincentive to significantly influence driving behavior. Just as the enforcement strategy has proven effective in reducing DWI, holding all users of roadways accountable for their legal duties according to our traffic laws and strengthening penalties would increase compliance and thereby safety.
Finally, an essential component of any public policy is education. Even the best-conceived law will have no effect if people are not aware of its application. As noted above, motor vehicle drivers complete extensive education before being permitted to operate on public roadways. Pedestrians too have been targeted through public education campaigns including classroom education. Still, there is room for improvement with education of all road users, as evidenced by the misunderstandings by all sides in this current discussion and in the rate of non-compliance of traffic laws. The current requirement for Class D driver education that “classroom curriculum […] must include instruction on the duties of a driver when encountering a bicycle, other non-motorized vehicles, or a pedestrian” (169.21 subd. 6) does not adequately provide what this education should include. BikeMN works to provide education to motor vehicle drivers through classes and informal teaching opportunities. We are currently advocating for changes to the statute that would provide more specificity on motor vehicle education as it relates to non-motorized road users. At the same time, BikeMN provides pedestrian and cycling safety information to thousands of Minnesotans each year through a range of programs, including Safe Routes To Schools, with our Walk! Bike! Fun! curriculum. We believe strongly that educating all road users of their rights and responsibilities benefits everyone.
Everyone can agree that making the roads safer for all users is a desirable objective. By examining the data that is available regarding current policy, infrastructure and educational solutions, it is our hope that we can implement reforms that will truly improve public safety.
—CJ Lindor, BikeMN Education Specialist