Denver Police Rehash Pedestrian Safety Messages From the 1920s

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This isn’t the new pedestrian safety brochure from the Denver Police Department, but it might as well be. Image via Peter Norton/Project Muse

If you walk or bike in Denver and you’re worried about reckless, speeding drivers, the Denver Police Department has a message for you: Too bad, you’re on your own.

DPD has been handing out cards to people walking and biking that rehash the same messages every American gets drilled into them starting in grade school. The campaign is called “Heads Up” and it’s sponsored by the police department, the city, and Colorado DOT.

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If preserving your own life isn’t enough of an incentive, these Denver PD pedestrian safety cards are here to help.

A reader gave Streetsblog Denver the card after a police officer handed it to his son, who was biking to school under his father’s supervision. It contains words of wisdom like “Don’t be a distracted walker” and, in case you forgot, “Look both ways before you cross the street!”

Denver Police Chief Robert White may have made a new commitment this year to ending traffic deaths and serious injuries, but the cards come out of the same old playbook. This particular campaign to finally educate death-defying walkers and bikers dates back to 2013 — and the tactic of rebuking people who dare not to drive is straight out of the 1920s.

Up until that point, cars were still seen as interlopers on city streets, and motorists were largely viewed as responsible for harming the people they struck. Then the auto industry waged a hugely successful public messaging campaign to shift blame to pedestrians. The message hasn’t changed much since then.

Neither has the danger posed by fast car traffic on city streets. Trauma from car crashes is the top reason for emergency room visits in Denver, according to Denver Health.

The “Heads Up” cards are what you get when law enforcement is more comfortable blaming victims than asking people behind the wheel of multi-ton machines to take responsibility. Earlier this year, Chief White wagged his finger at pedestrians during Mayor Michael Hancock’s Vision Zero announcement. And even though Denver PD’s opaque crash reports offer scant detail about what causes fatal collisions, police assert that four of the five pedestrians killed by drivers this year were at fault [PDF].

Heads Up cards tell pedestrians to cross only at intersections. Of course, on cars-first streets like Federal Boulevard, that can mean a 10-minute, half-mile detour to get to a destination directly across the street.

The agencies that produced the Heads Up campaign are the same ones with the power to redesign streets and enforce safe driving behaviors. Denver’s not going to make much progress on its Vision Zero traffic safety goals if, instead, they just hand out cards to people who have no control over traffic.