The headlights swiveled toward me just after I stepped off the curb. 

I was powering through the darkness just before dawn on my morning walk—and yeah, I saw the car. It was a white SUV. I saw that it was driving up a side street, and that the traffic circle in its path would slow its progress even if it was headed my way. I had plenty of time to cross.

What I didn’t foresee was the SUV ignoring the traffic circle, hairpinning a left turn—then gunning out of the turn straight at me. 

Lesson One: If you’re walking in the dark, wear reflective tape. Apparently not even a chartreuse windbreaker so blinding it could energize a solar panel has sufficient visibility.

This has been my year to learn how to cross the street. 

It seems cars plow into pedestrians all the time, at a rate higher in Seattle than New York City. This spring’s horror in Wedgwood, in which a drunk driver killed two elderly pedestrians and left their daughter-in-law and infant grandson with brain injuries, was cruelly emblematic of statistics showing that in a recent three-year stretch in Seattle—notwithstanding a mayor’s obsession—elderly pedestrians had more to fear from cars than cyclists did. At the moment, the big kahuna intersection for car-pedestrian accidents is Fifth and Jackson—gateway to the International District, stop for some 15 bus lines, entrance to Metro’s bus tunnel—but a handful of others over the last three years have tied for second. Which is to say: Walk with extra care at Bellevue and East Olive Way, 23rd
and Jefferson, Denny and Stewart, Fifth and Spring, and Third and Pike. 

And, I’ll add anecdotally, 24th and Boyer in Montlake—where a young runner was killed by a car six years ago. Every neighborhood has its infamous intersections; I didn’t fully grasp this one’s lethal potential till a couple of months ago when I was idling at the stoplight. Suddenly right past my windshield careened an old white beater, attempting to turn left but falling short just enough to crash headlong into the tree between my car and the bus stop. To my astonishment the dazed driver sat a moment, then popped his car into reverse, righted his course—and drove away. 

Lesson Two: Cars can’t be trusted. 

True, Seattle car-pedestrian accidents have been declining, thanks to a responsive DOT, which has brought visibility enhancements like those crosswalks near Seattle U that flash like Vegas whenever a car approaches. But those who study such things agree: Most crashes aren’t caused by inadequate signage. Most crashes result from stupid human behavior.

About a week after the Montlake business, a colleague walked out of our offices and waited at a Western Avenue crosswalk. Drivers slowed to a stop—but one, who was turning, hadn’t seen her. When he changed his mind, he charged ahead and knocked her to the pavement. As time slowed and she watched his Subaru loom larger above her, his tire gliding ever so gently up onto the top of her foot, then—as he found his brakes—back down again…something inside her shifted. (Something besides the blood pooling inside her knee and the disc bulging in her lower back.) She was resolving never again to take a driver’s stop for granted. 

Good call, noted a local transportation expert who’s lived all over the country. Pedestrians are the same here as everywhere, he told me. It’s Seattle drivers who are more distracted.

Uh...what?! you say. But where the rubber hits the roadkill, does it really matter who’s more distracted? In any contest between the guy wrapped in two tons of steel and the guy ambling along with his skin in the wind—well, it’s not really a contest, is it?

Lesson Three: Pedestrians need to take responsibility for themselves.

This blindingly obvious fact may seem counterintuitive to those who think Pedestrians Have the Right-of-Way is a truth written in the stars. In fact, the truth written in city and state codes is more meaningful: Pedestrians indeed enjoy the right-of-way at any intersection—even one without a crosswalk—unless they’re crossing against a light or stepping into the street as countdown numbers are flashing. (Uh, oops. And here I’ve been assuming anything over four seconds was my starting gun.) Pedestrians do not have the right-of-way if stepping into a crosswalk without giving an advancing car enough time to stop or if they’re crossing midblock—I’m looking at you, Rainier Avenue.

But just as not having right-of-way doesn’t give a car license to pick you off, having it doesn’t release a pedestrian from the most basic precaution: Make sure the driver sees you. 

And that was, on that dark morning last spring, my fail. How could that white SUV not see me? I insisted to myself, frozen in the middle of the street with a gaze so dumb I’m sure it made that poor proverbial lit-up deer look like a PhD candidate. I kept hearing it accelerate. I kept standing there.

Then I stretched my arms out in front of me, palms out—the international symbol for Stop!—and dang if that white SUV didn’t lurch to a halt, its hood resting lightly in my superhero hands, just as if I had any control at all.

 

Published: July 2013