CDOT Preaches Imagined Public Safety Crisis of “Distract Walking” on Denver Street Corners

"Stow your phone before crossing," CDOT orders. Photo: David Sachs
"Stow your phone before crossing," CDOT orders. Photo: David Sachs

Every so often the Colorado Department of Transportation decides it’s time to use public money to shame people walking in the name of street safety. The latest iteration of this ineffective tradition comes in the form of 100 chalk-painted intersections bearing a glow-in-the-dark image of the walk signal guy telling pedestrians to “stow your phone before crossing.”

It’s supposed to, ostensibly, make people safer. It won’t, because “distracted walking” is not a genuine threat to public safety, while distracted driving is a clear and present danger.

Drivers distracted by phones and other things caused 40 crashes a day throughout the state in 2016, with 97 resulting in deaths and life-changing injuries, according to CDOT. The department says it does not have data on crashes caused by people walking and using their phones.

With its latest stunt, which cost about $18,000, CDOT has latched on to a troubling national trend. Elected officials in Honolulu elevated the imaginary plight of distracted walking to the level of legal banishment, which has spawned copycats at the local government level.

Streetsblog USA’s Angie Schmitt reports:

Walking is so deadly in America because that’s how we’ve arranged our cities and towns. Streets are designed to move motor vehicles at lethal speeds without consideration for pedestrian safety, and our scattered development patterns increase driving and car traffic, exposing people on foot to greater risk.

Instead of reforming our transportation and land use policies to make walking safer, however, American cities are doubling down on a dysfunctional system by blaming pedestrians for their own deaths.

Honolulu set the precedent earlier this summer by passing a law that forbids looking at an electronic device while walking across an intersection, even though motorists are still permitted to look at dash-mounted devices while driving through intersections. The law won’t make people safer (data doesn’t support the idea that “distracted walking” is a significant factor in rising pedestrian fatalities), but will lend itself to selective enforcement and racial profiling.

To CDOT’s credit, the campaign is part of a larger one that calls out drivers. The roads department purchased billboards, TV and radio spots, social media ads, and print ads aimed at people who drive distracted. One is actually pretty moving:

Whether CDOT’s yearly “education” campaigns do anything to curb traffic deaths is suspect. There’s no data to indicate they do — the department admits it has no measuring stick — and traffic deaths continue to rise on Colorado roads.

On the other hand, CDOT’s engineers know what would save lives: Slower driving speeds wrought from more crosswalks, slimmer streets, curb extensions and other traffic calming tools on state highways that usher speeding cars through the city, like Federal Boulevard.

Street designs that accommodate walking, not gratuitous victim-blaming, will make Coloradans safer.

Screen Shot 2018-04-24 at 11.20.44 AM
One of CDOT’s billboards.

An earlier version of this article said the images were spray-painted. They were made with chalk paint.

  • MT

    I like distracted walking.
    I like looking around, daydreaming, enjoying the walk. I should be able to talk to a person, pay attention to my kids, my pets, read, while walking.
    If I’m not free to do that in public space, our public space is a failure.

  • BJL

    David Sachs completely missed the point of this campaign. It’s aimed at all of us, the community, in doing our part. Whether driving, or walking – we are responsible for being aware of our surroundings. Drivers need to look up and be aware when a pedestrian is crossing a crosswalk and has the right of way. Pedestrians need to ensure they’re utilizing designated crosswalks and crossing during the length the walk signal is illuminated. This isn’t ‘victim blaming’ and this isn’t about a ‘public safety crisis’ – this is about bringing attention to how electronics cause an additional distraction for ALL OF US and we can all do our part to make our communities safer places with less accidents caused by distractions.

    • MT

      Nope, you’ve missed the point.
      We can not expect a person walking to bear the same responsibility for safety as a licensed driver of a multi-ton vehicle.
      Situational awareness is a skill for licensed vehicle operators, not something we should expect of average people just walking around, including children, elderly, and disabled people.

      Putting equal responsibility on everyone is absolutely victim blaming. The ultimate responsibility lies with the public agencies that design this system where a tiny mistake by a driver or pedestrian results in death. Then that same agency blames the pedestrian for not being aware enough in the situation the agency created.

      • LP

        How dare you put that wall there!

        It’s real people.

        • MT

          Yeah, if people do that while driving, they kill people.
          While walking, no big deal, not putting anyone in danger.

          See the difference?

          • BJL

            They’re putting THEMSELVES in danger, as is apparent from these videos. Agreed to your point that doing this while driving is a major problem as well, hence CDOT’s Distracted Driving Campaign aimed SOLELY at drivers.

          • MT

            A. There is a huge difference between endangering other people with your behavior and only endangering yourself.
            B. Walking while distracted by anything should not be life threatening. The streets we design are what makes that a life threatening situation, not the act of walking.

            Putting the responsibility for safety on every random person that might walk in public, including children, handicapped, or elderly people instead of on licensed drivers of deadly vehicles and the engineers that designed the streets is a failure of society.

            Drivers don’t want to be responsible for their own behavior, CDOT doesn’t want to be responsible for the deaths on streets they built. So they blame the victims. Who already bear all the responsibility because they are the only ones who are in danger. The engineers and drivers with no skin in the game get to do all the blaming and shaming.

            Your videos are a joke. Those people are fine. It’s the streets and the drivers that cause the danger. There is absolutely no evidence that “distracted walking” has any affect on crashes and deaths. It’s a convenient excuse for drivers to feel like things aren’t their fault and for CDOT to continue to do absolutely nothing to make their streets safer.

        • BJL

          AMEN, LP!

          • MT

            Get bent, BJL!

  • fpfrainaguirre

    All of this is just a diversion tactic so we don’t have to think about the pollution we are walking in that is caused by moving vehicles and businesses that spew so many pollutants into the air–many that are not even regulated! Certainly some pollution has been eliminated but what about diesel?

  • fpfrainaguirre

    Why do we have such high rates of cancer, asthma, birth defects, etc.

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