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Thursday, May 13, 2010 12:42 am

Yielding to nonsense

The General Assembly makes pedestrians less safe

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Jerry Marcoccia, who chooses not to own a car for eceonomic and philosophical reasons, stands at the busy intersection of Broadway and Berwyn in Chicago.
PHOTO BY JOHN LEE/MCT

A General Assembly unable to pass the laws that are needed must pass something, and so busies itself passing laws that are not. One of these is Illinois House Bill 43, which in round figures demands that drivers must stop to allow a pedestrian to cross a street via any crosswalk. As I write it needs only Mr. Quinn’s signature to become law, and since he has never been able to distinguish between a bill that promises to do good and one that actually will, he seems likely to sign it.

Relations on our streets between people in cars and those who are not have always been vexed, and the statute books are crammed with laws meant to smooth them. Illinois drivers already must yield to any pedestrian they encounter in a marked or unmarked crosswalk or who is entering or exiting a street from a building, alley or driveway or when turning at an intersection or making a turn at a red light.

Alas, life as it is lived in Illinois is different from life as it is legislated, as everyone but legislators seems to realize. That is especially true in the Chicago area, where pedestrians in the middle of a street are regarded by drivers as Downstate farmers regard goldenrod in the middle of a bean field – something to be mowed down.

While law expresses local cultures, it can do little to alter them. I lived for eight years in Portland, Ore. That state had a zebra crossings law that compelled drivers – under threat of banning violators from coffeehouses – to stop when anyone stepped onto one. Local custom went much further however. One had merely to step onto the pavement at any point in the block, and cars – usually – would stop for you, unless they were being driven by Californians.

And Illinois? If you enter a marked crosswalk at a four-way stop in Highland Park, a town I know well, cars coming in your direction often will not wait for you to clear the walk but will cross the intersection while you are still underway, and pause (and sometimes honk) within a few feet of you. City Hall has been driven to the same extremity to which Sunday school teachers resort in the face of obdurate sin. Officials have attempted to exhort goodness, in this case by erecting signs at the busiest intersections that read “Cross safely. Drive courteously.”

Courtesy is a poor basis for public conduct, since people disagree about what courteous behavior is. Better, I’ve always thought, that people simply obey the law, whose meaning (at least in the case of crosswalks) is not disputed. Alas, one of the cosponsors of the new law, northside Chicago senator Heather Steans, argued that the meaning of “yield” as required by the present statutes confuses people.

No it doesn’t. An unwillingness to yield is not the same thing as being confused about the concept. Drivers believe streets belong to them. Period. And whatever the law says, they are right. The streets belong to motor vehicles not by right but by design. Most streets are not safe for walkers because to have made them so would have compromised their purpose, which is to move the maximum number of cars with the maximum possible efficiency.

Critics point out that the new law is unneeded, since pedestrian injuries have been falling for years. That trend owes much more to the fact that fewer people walk anywhere than it does to better driver behavior. However some people do walk – I am one of them – and some of them still get hurt. More than 6,000 pedestrians are hit in Illinois each year, resulting in more than 1,000 serious injuries and 170 deaths. But this new law will do little to reduce those numbers. A driver who will not yield as existing law requires, whether through inattention or aggression, is not going to stop because of the new one.

When there are lots of people on the streets, which happens in the Chicago area even when there is not a street festival or a fire going on, scrupulously obedient drivers could have to stop at every corner to allow people to cross. Pedestrian safety in such cases will come at the cost of delays and driver frustration. Drivers impatient to get to where they are going will likely speed up to compensate for all the interruptions, ramping up the risk for pedestrians.

The problem is that most streets are not designed with walker safety in mind. The solution is not a law that few will obey, and that might indeed make things worse, but the wholesale rethinking of this central feature of our transportation system. Until the millennium arrives, I believe we should render unto Toyota the things which are Toyota’s.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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