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.

  • The whole Colorado Front Range — including many people who walk and bike — are completely inculcated in the windshield perspective. I’ve been yelled at by Denver police for “impeding” traffic when I have the clear right-of-way as a pedestrian. You try to cross the street in a marked crosswalk in the suburbs and some moron from three blocks away will hit the gas to punish you with a close pass for getting in his way. Cars have the right-of-way where roads cross the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. Even RTD MallRide drivers can be stupidly aggressive on the 16th Street Mall. It’s all very frustrating.

  • Susan Barnes-Gelt

    Welcome to Zero Vision – the same posse that widens hiways and destroys, trades or gives away open space

  • ecycled

    Very disappointed in what I’ve witnessed from multiple agencies and city/state entities. Denver is rapidly becoming more like a Houston or Pheonix rather than a Seattle or Minneapolis when it comes to non-auto mobility issues. Sure we’ve seen a few carrots here and there but the institutionalized mindset, that which favors cars over all else, has not changed. We as a city, as a region, deserve better than policy that perpetuates the mindset of “cars now, cars tomorrow and cars forever”

  • teetuhm

    I don’t see the issue with the card here. Most pedestrians in Denver at least don’t follow even the most basic tenets out of the “old playbook.”

    It’s frightening to think of how many pedestrians put their utmost trust in me, the driver. They trust that I will always see them, that I will assume that they’re always going to cross without looking and even (gasp) against the light, and that they’re not always going to cross at the corners, and thus will drive accordingly.

    Maybe a 1920s reminder is just what we need, because apparently terrible pedestrian behavior hasn’t changed much since then.

    • mckillio

      The point is that the responsibility should first and foremost go with the person in charge of the 4,000lb pile of steel and that you should always be looking out for those that are most susceptible to your mode of transportation.

      • teetuhm

        Absolutely agree. I’m driving a death-machine every day. I have a responsibility to drive it safely and be aware of my surroundings. I get that. I will add, however, that it’s a (sorry) two-way street: Everyone using the road needs to be just as aware as the driver.

        So, to the pedestrian inching out between parked cars on Colfax: reconsider taking the corner instead of where the traffic does not expect you to cross.

        To the cyclist who sees a driver has put a blinker on and is going to make a turn: assume maybe the driver hasn’t seen you creep up since the last time they checked their mirror, or that you’re in their blind spot, and ride accordingly.

        To the pedestrian who has the right-of-way, but not the green light: assume the driver can’t see you on the corner behind the giant transformer box and please don’t step off the curb until you make eye contact.

        To the cyclist riding between cars on 14th Avenue at 5:30 in the afternoon: …I’m actually not even sure how to handle this one, but man, I saw you, and I gave you the space I could for how dangerously you were riding.

        As a pedestrian and a cyclist myself, I’d rather take my safety into my own hands, as opposed to always trusting the driver is going to follow the rules, see me, or respect my right-of-way. I’d rather be an over-cautious driver, pedestrian and cyclist and make it home all the time safely than not. I’d rather we all anticipate than react.

        • mckillio

          The things I see people do out there is crazy sometimes. Peds crossing the street when traffic has the perpendicular ROW and they never even look, bikers riding down Colfax and CO Blvd just in general. I have three main rules when I ride 1. Look out for my safety 2. Don’t negatively impact others 3. Be as efficient as possible I think those three rules can easily apply to all modes of transportation, if they did and were followed we’d all be a lot better off.

          • teetuhm

            AMEN. =)

  • Camera_Shy

    “police assert that four of the five pedestrians killed by drivers this year were at fault”

    Somehow I do not believe this would console me if I had been one of the drivers…no one wins in a car-pedestrian or car-cyclist accident.



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