As reported on Thursday, the Montgomery County Police Department held a press conference on bicycle and pedestrian safety. Unfortunately the whole thing was tone deaf, ignored the real issues with last week's fatal crash and safety in general and (as reported in Bethesda Magazine) devolved into victim blaming.
If you watch the video, Didone says that the reason for the event is that there has been a surge in serious bike/ped crashes in the last 16 days and the purpose is to discuss "what are some things we can do to prevent this so that this trend doesn't continue." He then says that when there is a serious crash of this type, the public tends to focus on driver speed and street design, but that - unbelievably - "today's discussion isn't going to talk about either of those things."
OK, so we're going to discuss bicycle and pedestrian traffic safety, but we aren't going to discuss two of the biggest issues in serious and deadly crashes. Got it.
Instead he wants to talk about how pedestrians and cyclists don't always have the right-of-way, like "when a pedestrian is not crossing in a crosswalk." Which would be far less ridiculous if he weren't standing in front of a freaking crosswalk. The same crosswalk in which a cyclists recently died, precipitating this media event.
His next example, when crossing at a signalized intersection and the signal says don't walk, is interesting and true, but also completely irrelevant.
But his main concern is this piece of Maryland law
A pedestrian may not suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is impossible for the driver to yield
Because "that's what happens very frequently." This is stated without evidence, and, in fact, in contrast to other evidence presented later. He then goes on to point out that pedestrians think they always have the right of way and
they may think that the crosswalk becomes a force field...or that drivers can stop on a dime.
Jeepers H. Christmas! No one thinks that. No one is confused about this part of the law or about the lack of force fields. Everyone understands that they can't just jump out in front of a car without giving it time to stop. If it weren't so sad, it would be funny that they think that THIS is the piece of education that the public needs.
I'm sad to say that he goes on.
"Physics has also told us that every time a two-ton vehicle comes into contact with a bicyclist or pedestrian, that the bicyclist or pedestrian loses every time,” Didone said. “It’s the longest losing streak that I know of. They lose every time.”*
Here again, he seems to be implying that bicyclists and pedestrians are just too dumb to know that cars will hurt them. I hear this kind of comment all the time, with that same implication - that this is news to me, but once made aware, I'll be more careful.
I'm here to say that we do know. We are all too aware. There isn't a week that goes by that someone doesn't pass too close to me and give me a little scare. And I'm scared because I know that if I get hit, it's not going to go well for me. Because of physics (which I did once teach). So really, this is not the problem.
So Didone called a press conference to tell vulnerable users things they already know. Which should be embarrassing since his colleague then noted that, yeah, this isn't really the problem at all. In fact it's probably the opposite.
Since 2011 there have been 10 collisions including Monday’s fatal incident at the crossing. Drivers were found to be at fault by park police in the other nine, according to Pelicano.
And the article makes the point that the investigation into the most recent crash has not been completed so we don't know what the cause is. But yeah, we should definitely waste some time addressing a couple of things (lack of common sense by vulnerable users, and lack of understanding of basic physics) that are NOT the cause of crashes at this intersection. The actual causes, well we're not going to discuss those.
The tree across the street from my old house was hit 3 times over 10 years. I would expect Didone to tell it how it could avoid getting hit. "Maybe wear a reflective vest? Have you ever studied physics? Also, I notice you're not wearing a helmet." This kind of victim blaming isn't new. Women have been putting up with this crap for years. But it's frustrating.
And I wish that we could just blame this on the police, but Jeff Dunckel, the pedestrian safety coordinator for Montgomery County shows up and also spends his time admonishing pedestrians.
Dunckel said cyclists and pedestrians should ride and walk “defensively” and urged cyclists to use “extra caution.” He encouraged them to wear light-colored clothing and reflective material.
That is all wonderful advice. Here I've been just using regular old caution, when what I needed was "extra caution" (what some people call "Unagi"). If only those 9 victims had shown extra caution and worn whiter shirts those drivers wouldn't have made a mistake and crashed into them.
Greg Billing is interviewed and is the voice of not batshit crazy.
He said drivers, pedestrians and cyclists must all make quick decisions at crossings and on roadways. “I firmly believe those decisions shouldn’t be deadly. That means the system, primarily the design of our streets, trail crossings and bike lanes have to be designed to prevent mistakes from being fatal.”
“If we’re going to be a vision zero community we have to start acting with urgency,” Billing said. “There has to be urgency because people are literally dying on our streets.”
Sigh, but Greg, we aren't discussing street design. We're discussing bad pedestrian behavior that is so frequently at fault (Frequently being 0% of the time at this crosswalk) and the physics of force fields. It's like he's not even listening. He's not alone. Capt. Rick Pelicano, a spokesman for the county’s park police department also discussed one of the issues that must not be mentioned.
Pelicano said the parks department, which has jurisdiction over Little Falls Parkway and the crossing, plans to meet with county officials soon to discuss possible changes to the crossing that could make it safer. That could include moving the crossing to the intersection of Little Falls Parkway and Arlington Road, where there’s a traffic signal, or adding stop signs on the roadway at the crossing to force vehicles to stop, according to Pelicano.
Moving the crossing is not really a solution either. It just gives them the ability to force trail users to stop (since now the crosswalk sign will be in play and users will no longer always have the right-of-way - as Didone so usefully pointed out). It has the added benefit of inconveniencing everyone using the trail too.
There are other possible solutions. Putting the crosswalk on a speed table, narrowing the road to one lane, creating a trail bridge, closing Little Falls Parkway, investing in that force field thing they were talking about, or something else would all make this trail crossing safer and protect pedestrians from their irrepressible urge to fling themselves into traffic in the hopes that they will win in a collision with a car (the streak has to break some day right? Just look at the Cubs).
But Didone makes it clear that he opposes engineering improvements - because of the cost. When asked what it would hurt to add in a flashing light he replied
It would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And keeping money safe is his primary job. Trail users are somewhere farther down his list. He cited the Henson Trail crossing of Viers Mill Road where 2 cyclists have died in the last year as an example of how engineering solutions are just not as useful as reminding cyclists that cars are really big.
We put millions of dollars of safety on, and cyclists didn't even push the button.
I don't know if Osorio, the cyclist who died there in the summer, pushed the button to activate warning flashers or not, and I'm not sure how the police would either. But it's ridiculous to say that people aren't pushing the button. Obviously some are.
This "better engineering isn't the solution" line isn't new. After the Osorio crash someone from SHA argued the same thing.
The problem, said David Buck, an SHA spokesman, is that engineering solutions alone cannot prevent all fatalities. Enforcement and education are also needed — catching speeding drivers and encouraging cyclists and pedestrians to activate the flashers.
Unfortunately, Buck said, citing a crash report and Montgomery County police officials, the two cyclists in the deadly collisions did not push the button to activate the flashers.
Again, not sure about Osorio, but I'm positive that the victim in the earlier crash, Frank Towers, didn't push the button. I'm sure because it hadn't been installed yet. I'm surprised Didone didn't call for the solution that Buck did at Viers Mill - cyclists should dismount and walk their bike across.
Didone continued on about the Henson Trail crossing of Viers Mill Road.
Didone said in both Veirs Mill Road collisions the bicyclists were determined to be at fault after police investigations.
Which....isn't true. In the first crash, the driver was cited for "Passing a vehicle stopped for pedestrian at crosswalk". He was acquitted on the technicality that a cyclist is not a pedestrian and that there is no law protecting cyclists in that situation.
“Why was that?” Didone asked. “Because the witnesses observed that the bicyclists did what bicyclists do far too frequently. They do not want to slow their momentum or come to a stop before entering the roadway.”
No they don't, but if there's a car coming, they usually do. But again, Didone is inaccurate. Towers - at least - was crossing the road with a stopped car in the closest lane and then he was hit in the next lane. So, whether he stopped or not is sort of irrelevant (and I'm not sure if it is even known).
One thing the two have in common is that at both crossings, trail users want a traffic light of some sort added in.
At some point Didone did note that drivers have some responsibility to protect vulnerable users.
Didone said all drivers must stop on multilane roads when a vehicle in another lane stops to allow a pedestrian to cross. This issue was brought into focus earlier this month when video showed a van striking a woman walking in a River Road crosswalk on Oct. 4.
But he added that
the video showed the pedestrian who was struck appeared to be on her cellphone. He urged pedestrians to pay attention while crossing roadways.
“Pedestrians need to do their part,” Didone said.
Let's not forget that in some of these cases, pedestrians - while not breaking the law - were not perfect either.
*Actually there was a case in the late 1990's in Mt. Pleasant when a driver lost control of their car, hit a cyclist, and then crashed into a tree. The cyclist was fine, and the driver died. So, the losing streak isn't necessarily worse than that of the Washington Generals