TATSUO NAKATA WAS JUST ONE of nine Seattle pedestrians hit and killed by cars in 2006. But his death set off shock waves, thanks to both who he was and who was driving. The driver who hit Nakata didn’t fit stereotypes about deadly drivers: He was a clergyman, Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz, rushing to get his daughter to school. But Schwartz was no model driver: He had already notched up at least eight moving violations and hit a bicyclist two years earlier, and he was talking on his cellphone when he hit Nakata. After King County declined to prosecute him, he became the test case for a two-year-old city law allowing drivers who cause serious injury or death to be prosecuted for assault. When he was convicted, it seemed for a moment that the system worked.
Nakata was no nameless victim; he was then–City Council member David Della’s chief of staff. Della and others at city hall decided the time had come to get serious about protecting pedestrians. Though the Brookings Institution rates Seattle one of the nation’s most walking-friendly cities, its safety track record is far from perfect: Sixty-three pedestrians have died on its streets since 2000, and thousands more have suffered nonfatal but often painful and life-altering encounters with cars.
The next year, 2007, became known as the Year of the Pedestrian, as the City Council voted to make pedestrian safety its top legislative and budgetary priority. But the Nickels administration set out on the wrong foot: Instead of seeking new ways to get drivers like Schwartz off the road, it tried to scare pedestrians straight. Shortly after Nakata’s death the police department and mayor’s office created and circulated a brochure warning that “the Seattle Police Department enforces pedestrian laws” with $56 jaywalking tickets. “Obey the Law!” the brochure intoned.
The Seattle Pedestrian Advisory Board, which has advocated for those afoot since 1993, swiftly rebuked the brochure’s authors. “It appears that the Seattle Police Department’s interpretation of ‘pedestrian safety’ is to crack down on pedestrians,” wrote the board’s chair, Celeste Gilman. A year later, Gilman explains that the way to make walking safer is to encourage it, not discourage it: “You could reduce [accident] numbers by having lots of people walking, or you could do it by discouraging people from walking. Same numbers, vastly different results. More people out on the streets walking helps increase safety because drivers expect pedestrians more.”
“The Pedestrian Master Plan is really making Seattle a walking city.” —Barbara Gray, Pedestrian Master Plan Project Manager, Seattle Department of Transportation
City officials at least give the notion good lip service. Their tentative plans for replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct are seeded with terms like “holistic street remodel” and “walkability.” They look to the ways such cities as Tokyo, Portland, and Vancouver, BC, have promoted walking and safeguarded people who get out of their cars and onto the sidewalks. “When decisions are made about funding for roadway improvements, bicycles and pedestrians are being considered,” says Barbara Gray, project manager for a pedestrian plan the Seattle Department of Transportation is readying for 2009. “The Pedestrian Master Plan is really making Seattle a walking city.” The City’s promotion of what Gray calls “urban village land use”—mixed uses and higher density in the urban core—should also encourage hoofing it, by providing more destinations to walk to.
Funds are in place to start even sooner than next year. In 2008, the City plans to spend over $4.6 million on sidewalks and $500,000 to install safety technology such as crossing flags, pedestrian refuge islands, countdown signals, and in-pavement sidewalk flashers. In addition, the “Bridging the Gap” levy will add some $40.9 million to the Seattle Department of Transportation’s 2008 project budget to improve general transportation infrastructure.
Better infrastructure for pedestrians may be long overdue, but the fact remains that they usually get hit during the day, in good weather. “We are finding that most people involved in a pedestrian-vehicle crash are largely at signalized intersections,” Gray explains, “so driver awareness will be a focus.”
Seattle can’t hope to protect pedestrians without cracking down on the main threat to their safety: the aggressive drivers who cause most fatalities. The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration estimates that about one-third of all car crashes and two-thirds of resulting fatalities can be attributed to aggressive driving, and that almost three-fourths occur in dense urban areas like Seattle. This city’s share of that grim total has climbed from an average of six pedestrian deaths a year in 2000 through 2002, to nine a year (in 2003 through 2007.
The police “interpretation of ‘pedestrian safety’ is to crack down on pedestrians.” —Celeste Gilman, Chair, Seattle Pedestrian Advisory Board
In May 2007, Seattle Police created an Aggressive Drivers Response Team to mete out $124 tickets for tailgating, changing lanes without signaling, and speeding. But Seattle continued burnishing its reputation for cracking down on another class of scofflaw, one many other jurisdictions ignore: jaywalkers. Last year police ticketed 2,524 wayward walkers. They ticketed fewer than one-sixth as many drivers—call them “jaydrivers”—who failed to yield to pedestrians at crosswalks, the violation that most directly threatens law-abiding walkers. (Pedestrians generally have the legal right of way at intersections, with or without marked crosswalks, unless signals specify otherwise.)
Officers in patrol cars “have a windshield perspective on the world,” complains David Hiller, advocacy director for the Cascade Bicycle Club, the leading local cyclists’ group. “They see someone jaywalking in front of them and they give a ticket”—whether or not that jaywalking interferes with drivers or endangers the walker. But, Hiller contends, -police tend to ticket only reckless drivers who’ve caused accidents. And they violate the yield-to-pedestrians law just like other drivers. “I’ve been walking across a crosswalk before and a police officer in a car has looked left and turned into my path,” he remembers.
“That’s not an acceptable attitude, that’s not acceptable behavior.”
Seattle is one of the few cities to adopt a vehicular-assault law such as the one it used to prosecute Ephraim Schwartz—a showpiece of its -pedestrian-protection policies. Before, drivers who caused death or serious injury were only subject to a $101 fine. Now they face a fine of up to $5,000 and one year in jail. So far 38 drivers have been charged under the two-year-old rule, but only Ephraim Schwartz has been found guilty.
And despite his worrisome driving record, Schwartz received just a deferred sentence, plus the suspension of his driver’s license. After two years the charge could be erased from his record—and he’d be free to drive again.