How NOT to Make a Street Safety Video

dangerstoppers video titleWe watched the new City of Beverly Hills video ‘Watch Your Walk,’ part of the Dangerstoppers series co-produced by the Beverly Hills Police Department and the city’s Health and Safety Commission, because we were curious what kind of safety advice City Hall dispenses. And true to this trouble-titled video, pedestrians are admonished to take extra care because drivers are off-the-hook for their bad road behavior.

We wondered, why has Beverly Hills suddenly gotten into the street safety business? For years the city has turned a blind eye to driver aggression streets (especially when it’s directed at those who ride a bicycle). Perhaps officials were prompted to act by the average six pedestrians injured every month on Beverly Hills streets. That rate has not declined over the past five years (as our own number-crunching of BHPD data shows, below).

All collisions 2008-2013 graphOr maybe the ‘Watch Your Walk’ video was occasioned by the two collision fatalities this past Spring [per the BHPD monthly traffic report]. That should be a wake-up call to take street safety seriously, and it was. Officials focused attention to long-existent problems in the hillsides. But what about the rest of the city? As we’ve earlier noted, the Traffic and Parking Commission receives BHPD data every month but doesn’t ask many questions about why people are injured so reliably on our streets. Presumably these commissioners chalk it up to ‘accidents.’ Well, we never say ‘accident’ because most often, collisions occur when someone fails to take due care on the road.

Unlike the commission, we’ve wondered why crash injuries continue at that high level. So we looked to data. And from our perspective, it’s no wonder why Beverly Hills remains on par with the worst of small cities in California where street safety is concerned: our officials themselves are not taking due care to prevent collisions. For example, faded crosswalks are the rule here. (We don’t even use thermoplastic like many cities do for its durability.) And few speed limit signs remind drivers to limit slow to 25 mph on residential streets. Most important, there exists near-zero police enforcement to sanction those speeders and red-light runners.

In fact, we’ve grown so concerned about the lack of traffic enforcement that we provided this supportive statement to the Traffic Safety Coalition, which is the red light camera trade association:

The single greatest threat to walkers and bikers in Beverly Hills is the driver who fails to stop at a red light. At every light change on major corridors, two, three, even four drivers run the red, and often sufficiently late to strike someone who’s entered the crosswalk or intersection… So who’s minding the store where safety is concerned? Perhaps automated enforcement is the only option left if our officials value the safety of our walkers and bikers as much as I do. – Mark Elliot, Better Bike

Unlike human officers, our automated enforcement is on the job 24-7 and issues 1200-1400 tickets every month within city limits. But witness the declining number of officer-issued citations:

Signed citations 2008-2013 graphOur police management chalks it up to under-staffing, to officers on temporary disability or vacation, to resource demands elsewhere. But such a steady decline over five years? Doesn’t that suggest some mismanagement of enforcement priorities by the City Manager, Jeff Kolin?

We welcome the Health and Safety Commission’s effort to prop up walker safety precisely where our Traffic and Parking Commission fears to tread. As we all share the road, and that makes it’s important for all of us to recognize our responsibility to keep all road users safe. But the problem with the Dangerstoppers video is that it heaps responsibility upon pedestrians; drivers get a pass. Have a look at the video, co-produced by the Health and Safety Commission and BHPD.

Dangerstoppers: The Cop

dangerstoppers video Office DowlingLet’s take a brief look at the key points made in the video, starting with the Beverly Hills Police Department’s Sgt. Scott Dowling, presented here as an expert. He begins:

I’m tired of responding to accidents involving vehicles versus pedestrians….It’s a two-prong approach: the first is a strict enforcement by law enforcement, the second is education. And I’m here to teach you.

He may be hear to teach, but from the chart at top we can see that his department is not going to strictly enforce. Yet Officer Dowling misinforms when citing the following “five common reasons” for accidents:

  • Pedestrians who ‘dart-and-dash’ into an unmarked crosswalk “at a pretty fast clip,” perhaps while distracted, into the driver’s way;
  • pedestrians who play ‘chicken’ with drivers by crossing a marked crosswalk once the near driver stops, though presumably poses a danger to the other drivers who plow on through;
  • pedestrians who impede drivers trying to turn right at a signaled crosswalk (for some reason called a ‘blind turn’ in the video);
  • pedestrians (like the woman with child, at right) who present a ‘mid-block surprise’ to drivers when they cross a marked crosswalk with the walk signal; and the perennial favorite,
  • pedestrian ‘jaywalkers’ who pop out between parked cars to put themselves at risk.
dangerstoppers video unmarked crosswalk

Pedestrians have right-of-way at every unmarked crosswalk. And many in Beverly Hills like this one are four-way stops!

While we agree with that last admonition (recall the memorable NYC campaign, “cross at the green, not in-between”), the others may be common sense but aren’t reflective of state or local law. For one thing, pedestrians have the right of way at every marked and unmarked crosswalk (left). Moreover, a pedestrian may rightly wear earbuds, or talk into a phone, or even conduct an imaginary orchestra while crossing the street.  Distracted pedestrians present little to anybody but themselves.

But we should focus on driver distractions as vehicles can do great damage.* Witness the vignette in this video wherein the driver plows into the crosswalk even after the pedestrian has entered it (below). Here the ‘blind turn’ is anything but blind; the sightlines are clear. If only the driver took due care.

dangerstoppers video signaled crosswalkAnd then there is the ‘mid-block surprise’ (right). What are we to make of a safety video that shows a pedestrian legally crossing with the green walk sign in a fully signaled mid-block crosswalk… but then it puts responsibility on her to not be a ‘surprise’ to drivers? Drivers have the red light and have to stop.

As for bad advice, this video isn’t the first example of law enforcement putting the thumb on the scale in the drivers’ favor. We saw it in the Blue Ribbon process when BHPD Sgt. Mader ventured that a bike lane for Santa Monica Boulevard would be dangerous (a theory debunked by PD brass); and we experience the presumption of guilt when an officer responds to a bike-involved collision. Though this video effectively puts the responsibility for safe streets on pedestrians for a change.

Dangerstoppers: The Nurse

dangerstoppers video nurse StewartCedars nurse Donovan Stewart offers some common sense suggestions for keeping safe in the city. (Officer Dowling notes that ‘urban environments’ are where 73% of deaths occur, though without defining the term ‘urban.’) There are plenty of distractions, Stewart says, and he dispenses with this helpful homespun tip: “The same as we would say for children: look left and right before crossing the street.” Good advice.

The video elaborates with a few more canards that in certain contexts may well be recommended but in no way conflict with state or local law:

  • “No texting while walking,” it says, though it is fully legal to text and walk (it’s even legal to work a phone by hand while driving a motor vehicle – if not texting);
  • “no crossing streets with earphones/earbuds” the video says, though it is perfectly legal (riders note: only one earbud under state law!);
  • “make eye contact with the driver” for your safety – and perhaps wave our arms to alert any of the 40,000 drivers daily on major boulevards that we need to cross safely?; and our favorite,
  • “when walking at night, wear bright clothing or reflective gear so that a driver can see you….”

What could be next: a pedestrian helmet law?

The Dangerstoppers video is particularly notable for what isn’t addressed. It makes no mention of speed and the dangers it presents in ‘urban environments.’ On that note, we’ve corresponded with the city again recently and yet again about our own local street where drag-racing is the new sport. Though speed is often a contributing factor in crash injuries, our Traffic and Parking Commission has simply never addressed it.

dangerstoppers video pedestrian has the right of wayThe video doesn’t remind drivers that ‘stop’ means stop! We’ve groused to the city about how frequently drivers run red lights on our major thoroughfares (even when automated cameras keep watch). Casual observation shows that many don’t heed stop signs even. Yet the video puts the responsibility solely on the pedestrian. But pedestrians need not stop as we have the right-of-way in every marked crosswalk and at every alley end and even in every unmarked crosswalk.

The video doesn’t note that engineering and design play a role in street safety. From the wide corridors of postwar suburbs (called ‘dangerous by design’ in this report) to local streets like ours, engineering our streets to be ‘complete’ and accessible to all road users makes a difference in safety. Looked at another way, not instituting traffic-calming treatment on residential street is a policy decision. The Walkable and Livable Communities Institute can tell you all about it. (Check out their traffic calming videos.)

Designing for speed street cross section

Courtesy of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute.

The Take-Away: Safety is the City’s Job, Not the Pedestrian’s Responsibility

From watching the Beverly Hills video, you’re forgiven for thinking that streets that by design speed the traffic aren’t of your concern. Or that  faded crosswalks that render pedestrians less-visible to drivers (especially at night) are none of your business. Or that you need to wear reflective clothing to be seen, and need to defer to drivers when you have the right of way. That’s because the burden of self-preservation falls to you, the pedestrian.

But just as streets can be engineered to be safe and laws are there to be enforced for pubic health, welfare and safety, we should expect our transportation officials and policymakers to step up and take responsibility – not shoulder it off on pedestrians.

This video closes with Officer Dowling reminding us, “It’s the goal of the Beverly Hills Police Department to make the road safe, and it’s your responsibility to help.” We beg to differ: it’s the responsibility of the police and the city to make our roads safe. That’s a responsibility and not a goal. It’s also the responsibility of all road users (including drivers and riders) to follow the law and take due care when sharing the road. And yes, use common sense when sharing it. If there’s a takeaway from this video it’s that common sense is necessary but not sufficient to keep us whole.

Let’s hope the Health and Safety Commission recognizes the error, and in the next Dangerstoppers video puts responsibility for road safety where it belongs: with officials. Let’s hear from the BHPD about its “strict enforcement” when their own data suggests that enforcement is a sloughed-off responsibility. Let’s ask Traffic and Parking Commission members about what they’re doing to lower the persistent (high) level of collision injuries when they’re not even asking basic questions.

And let’s hear from Susan Healey Keene, Director of the Community Development Department (which has responsibility for transportation planning); and also Aaron Kunz, Deputy Director for Transportation.

And if we’re looking to improve road-user behavior, let’s start admonishing the road users who bring the harm: drivers in two-ton boxes who fail to recognize their duty of care under the law. A prior Dangerstoppers video addresses distracted driving. That’s fine and good. But there’s much more to do to get drivers to behave properly. Then we can talk about what pedestrians and riders can do to make our streets sharable.

*Federal figures put domestic vehicle collision deaths at 35,000 for 2012, according to the National Transportation Safety Administration.

Santa Monica Blvd Recap & Update

Recently we spoke with Aaron Kunz, Deputy Director for Transportation, about Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction and what to next expect in the process. Recall that back in March, the Council majority seemed unwilling to concede an extra foot of width to accommodate them. But the ballooning cost estimate stalled the project, and the Council deferred action pending more information about costs and traffic mitigation.

Santa Monica Boulevard: Quick Recap of the Timeline

The reconstruction of Santa Monica Boulevard has proved to be a much greater challenge than expected when the project was put on the city’s agenda in September of 2010. Back then, construction was anticipated to begin mid-2013. But that timeline began to slide in early 2012 when, prior to distribution, the draft project RFP  was referred back to staff because it specified no ‘complete streets’ measures as part of the project.

(The inclusion of complete streets principles is entirely discretionary, yet, as we recommended to the city, would be forward-looking. In 2009, a new state law directed localities to include complete streets principles in plans and policies by 2011. The intent was to ensure that making streets ‘complete’ or safe for all users would guide local transportation planning and infrastructure construction. But Beverly Hills got under the wire with a general plan update in 2010, and of course our city has passed no local complete streets ordinance to mandate such safety measures.)

Beverly and triangle intersections compared

Crosswalk across Beverly Boulevard (at SM) needs a bit of TLC compared to the triangle’s upgraded streetscape.

As a result of our own inattention, complete streets treatments (like continental crosswalks and traffic calming measures such as curb extensions) are rare in Beverly Hills anywhere outside of the polished diamond of the business triangle.

When the draft RFP came up for Council review, then-Mayor John Mirisch argued that complete streets principles should frame expectations for this key transportation project and Council agreed. But even with that revised RFP, the project contract wasn’t signed until a full year later.

What should tomorrow’s corridor look like? City Council in the fall of 2013 appointed a Blue Ribbon Committee to consider conceptual design options. The committee’s work concluded in January of 2014. Between the Blue Ribbon and City Council meeting in March of this year, over 200 members of the public commented in support of bicycle lanes…public input which the Council majority seemingly opposed to lanes simply waved away. Since then, the entire project has been (figuratively) parked.

What’s next?

Backbone Bike NetworkWhile city staff & consultants prepare traffic mitigation options and revised cost estimates, Council is pondering the politics of boulevard widening and the prudence of dual-phasing the project with the western segment coming later. As we earlier observed, the problem for riders is that the lanes option could slip away unless we keep our focus on the project as a larger piece of the regional bicycle backbone network (right); and that much-needed safety improvements to the Santa Monica-Wilshire intersection may be deferred indefinitely.

On September 23rd the project comes back to City Council. Will Council then address the bicycle lanes question? Aaron Kunz from Beverly Hills was not committal; he described the agenda item it as more of a discussion about cost and traffic mitigation. But the traffic mitigation issue is directly related to the bicycle lanes question: if Council decides to unduly limit the width of tomorrow’s boulevard (to 63 feet or less, for example) it will forever preclude bicycle lanes for Santa Monica Boulevard.

In effect, Council could decide the lanes question simply by choosing a specific mitigation option that boxes out the possibility, without ever directly addressing the merits of a bicycle lane.

We’ll know more about the contours of the Council’s discussion when the staff report is released the Friday before.

BH Chamber GAC logoBefore that Council meeting, however, the Beverly Hills Chamber has scheduled an August 21st government affairs committee meeting to discuss the bike lanes option. As presented in the announcement, the Chamber will receive pro & con positions on the lanes, with high-profile NIMBYs like Robert and Bob Tanenbaum and Thomas White speaking out against them. You are urged to attend. More information can be found in our earlier post.

Don’t you can email members of City Council to remind them that you ride in and around Beverly Hills and that safe passage along this corridor is not discretionary – it is an obligation for the city to provide. Use our handy contacts cheat sheet and remind city officials that bike riders matter too.

Use the Joint Powers Agreement as Leverage

BHHS bicycle rack cluster

City of Beverly Hills can take many steps to encourage safe cycling, but no step would be as formative as making sure our school district plans for safe cycling align with our city’s vision for multimodal mobility. Today our school campuses are hardly bike-friendly: only a few K-8 plants include a bicycle rack, and our high school (right) is a worst-practice example in how to discourage riding to school. But City Council could leverage our joint-powers agreement with BHUSD to ensure that the school board makes campuses much more bike-friendly. As we’ve said before, the schools might just be the best opportunity to get folks riding. In the face of policymaker indifference to a citywide bike network, and outright hostility to … Continue reading