Pedestrian deaths are soaring, with 5,997 people dying traumatic deaths on America’s roads last year. That’s a serious story that warrants serious action—but instead, NBC’s Today show turned it into a fact-lite joke. No wonder people distrust the media.
The facts: between 2014 and 2016, pedestrian deaths rose 22 percent, according to a new study by the Governors Highway Safety Association. Motorist and car-passenger deaths are up, too. But pedestrians are dying at a faster rate, comprising 15 percent of total traffic deaths, up from 13 percent of the nation’s 32,999 traffic deaths in 2010 to 15 percent of the total 35,092 traffic deaths in 2015. Last year, 34 states saw rises in pedestrian deaths, with 359 people killed in California alone. It’s an “alarming and unprecedented” increase, the study concludes.
The reasons, however, are unclear. People are driving more, with traffic up 3.3 percent over 2015, to a record level. People are also walking more. But “a more recent factor,” the study observes, may be “the growing use of smart phones by all road users, which can be a significant source of distraction for both drivers and pedestrians.” The last point is common sense, and is borne out by the steady stream of stories about drivers who died texting.
In reporting on the new study, Today could have used the facts to warn its 4.3 million daily viewers about the dangers of texting while driving, which is is borne out by the stories of texters who harmed others, like the mother who killed an elderly man as he crossed a country road wearing a reflective vest, or the teen who killed a 10-year-old girl and her father in a car after running a red light. Indeed, last year, Today featured the family of a motorcyclist killed by a texting woman.
But Thursday, the show’s co-host, Savannah Guthrie, and reporter Kerry Sanders decided to blame the victims of texting drivers. Sanders reported from Orlando, which, he notes, is the worst American city for walkers. “Every day, two people are struck in a crosswalk” in the Florida city, he says, with one killed each week. “And yes,” he adds, “it has a lot to do with this, cellphones. We’re not talking about people in cars. We’re talking about people walking across the street looking down on their cellphone.”
This assertion is not supported by the study that the show cites, so one would expect Sanders to follow up with some sharp anecdotes of people killed or seriously injured because they were distracted as they walked. Sanders does interview one Orlando car-crash victim who says of the wreck that seriously injured him on Christmas Eve, “I had no clue, I didn’t see that car. It just hit me.”
But surveillance video of the crash, which NBC runs without comment, shows that the victim was blameless. The young man, whose name is not clear in the report, is not even crossing the street; rather, he is standing still on the crosswalk’s curb ramp, waiting for the light to change in his favor. He is not texting, nor is he even holding a cellphone. The driver of a fast-moving car veers out of his travel lane and right up to the curb, running the young man over on the sidewalk.
The show’s next incident involves Susan Gentry, “nearly killed” by a pickup truck. Gentry, though, says nothing about texting and walking. Instead, she notes that she was crossing with the light and in the crosswalk when she got pinned underneath the truck. For its story about how pedestrians are endangering themselves by texting, then, NBC apparently can’t find one case of a texting pedestrian who inattentively walked in front of an attentive driver.
The visuals in the NBC story point out the real problem: unsafe roads for pedestrians, whether they follow the law or not, whether they’re on their phones or not. The intersection where Sanders stands—after himself scurrying across traffic because the light changes too quickly—is more akin to a highway than a road, with three lanes of traffic moving quickly in each direction. Drivers make right turns on red lights, meaning that the pedestrian often has no time to cross safely if one such driver is distracted. And other than Sanders and presumably his film crew, nobody is out walking around; drivers thus aren’t used to looking for people on foot. Sanders makes his report during the day, but at night, in particular, a pedestrian really would take his life into his hands in running across that street—and many others in the country.
Of course, pedestrians should pay attention when they cross the street, and that includes putting away their phones. Pedestrians should also pay attention on sidewalks, at parades, and in their own homes. Children playing in their yard ought to be mindful, too. But if a bad driver veers into a home, a yard, a sidewalk, or a crosswalk, pedestrian attentiveness won’t mean much.
The Today show could have put the emphasis on where the peril really lies: with inadequate laws and enforcement against bad drivers. Instead, Guthrie concludes that she herself is “guilty as sin” of texting and walking, and says “it’s dangerous and I know I shouldn’t do it.” That’s virtuous, but stopping won’t necessarily make her safer. What makes her safer is that she works and walks in the only American city, New York, that gives pedestrians at least a fair shot against drivers, thanks to its street design and its sheer numbers of walkers.
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