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Who’s Afraid of the “Petextrian”?

The phantom of the “distracted pedestrian” haunts America

They are suddenly everywhere, like mushrooms after the rain: Walking at night with the right-of-way but with their heads down; occupying the intersection for just a couple seconds too long while answering a stray text message; wandering midblock into a suburban thoroughfare where the crosswalks are a mile apart and the cars zoom by at 40 mph. They are the recurring nightmare of every driver going a little too fast when it’s a little too dark out; their specter haunts local-news websites when there’s a fatal crash in the neighborhood and self-proclaimed “car guys” rush to the comments section to exonerate their own. They are, in short, the newest menace on American streets: the distracted pedestrian.

In the last year, local lawmakers across the nation have become convinced that smartphone-addled pedestrians are a pressing public-safety concern. Honolulu, a city where the weather is so perfect that everyone should naturally want to walk everywhere at all times, passed the nation’s first “distracted walking” law in July, which approves fines for pedestrians who look at a phone or other digital device while using a crosswalk. Next came San Mateo County, a suburban area south of San Francisco; similar laws are under consideration in Cleveland, Stamford, Ct., and the entire state of New Jersey. In early November, two Chicago aldermen proposed an ordinance to ban “distracted walking,” punishable by fines of up to $500. The aldermen, like most proponents of distracted-walking crackdowns, claimed that they were responding to an alarming spike in local traffic fatalities.

In a battle between one person wearing clothing and shoe-leather and another wearing a speeding, combustible two-ton metal machine, Ford wants us to believe that the former is the real threat.

There’s no doubt that traffic fatalities are indeed rising across the United States. After ticking downward from 2006-11, the number of Americans killed in collisions has increased steeply since 2015. The number now stands at almost 40,000 annually. In 2016 alone, pedestrian fatalities increased by 11 percent, the largest one-year spike in recorded history. Traffic crashes are the thirteenth most common cause of death in the United States, and the single leading cause of death for people aged eight to twenty-four. As with health care and gun violence, our record on road safety is now among the worst in the developed world, and it’s getting worse.

It’s difficult, however, to see how distracted pedestrians bear any real responsibility for this trend. Most Americans drive, and the primary effect of what transportation planners call “windshield bias” is to always blame somebody else. (Even in New York, the mayor is an avid driver whose car-centric perspective has led him to take positions that would actively harm most of his constituents.) Everything we know from countries that have successfully reduced road deaths indicates that the most effective approach is to systematically redesign streets to prioritize safety over speed. The growing moral panic over being wired while walking takes none of this into account. Instead, Americans are increasingly being told that the solution is an arbitrary, punitive approach that has little evidence to back it up.

“Distracted pedestrian” laws aren’t really about the evidence, though. They are about maintaining the privileges of car culture as that culture is about to confront an enormous shift in the balance of civic and technological power—one that threatens to permanently upend the relationship between drivers and pedestrians.

As it happens, the enormous legal privileges of car drivers are rooted in an earlier anti-pedestrian campaign dating from the early days of the automobile. Historically, city streets had been part of the public realm. Vendors, horse-drawn vehicles, playing children, and public-transit streetcars all used them, but the pedestrian dominated. Crossing the street on foot was a simple matter of walking from one side to another. Due to their mechanical power, fast speeds, and need for large amounts of physical space, cars upset this mix of uses and posed a new mortal danger to pedestrians exercising their right to mobility. So starting in the 1920s, automakers and their allies led a coordinated effort to “socially reconstruct” American city streets, as historian Peter D. Norton writes — shifting responsibility for maintaining road safety away from drivers and onto pedestrians.

For some time, pedestrians were the clear winners of this battle, at least in the court of public opinion. During the first few decades of the twentieth century, cars were playthings of the rich, and traffic collisions led to widespread moral outrage on behalf of the thousands of pedestrians who were killed each year (mostly children and the elderly). But over time, the mechanical might of automobiles effectively allowed drivers to bully their way into dominance: “Whatever the legitimacy of their claim to street space, the motoring minority had the power to drive pedestrians from the pavements,” Norton writes. “Fearful for their safety, nonmotorists learned to limit their own access to streets and to caution their children to look both ways before crossing.”

Soon, this advantage in physical force was written into laws and social mores. Based on a law enacted in Los Angeles in 1925, auto-industry trade associations began to craft “model” traffic ordinances that privileged cars over pedestrians, and encouraged transportation officials around the country to adopt them. These ordinances placed strict controls on pedestrian movement and reserved the vast majority of street space for cars, even though motorists were still a significant minority in U.S. cities. Such car-centric legislation found allies within the nascent profession of traffic engineering, whose original purpose was to design highways in rural areas. Traffic experts at state highway departments excelled at building roads connecting towns to each other, but few of them understood the very different needs of a busy urban streetscape.

And if new laws didn’t effectively get pedestrians out of urban roadways, car companies, aided by police departments and city planners, imposed social sanctions on walkers. Taking inspiration from the slang word “jay,” which referred to a country bumpkin, auto advocates started to refer to crossing the street illegally as “jay walking”—that is, the behavior of a rube who’s too backward to know how to properly behave in a city. Just as it was among the first cities to adopt a traffic ordinance privileging drivers over pedestrians, Los Angeles pioneered the tactic of shaming pedestrians who refused to yield their rights to motorists. Police were encouraged to blow loud whistles and host mock trials for Californian pedestrians who were simply behaving as they had for decades. Campaigns sponsored by the American Automobile Association taught school-aged children that in this new era, streets were for cars first and foremost. In less than a decade, a new hierarchy of street use had been invented out of thin air, prioritizing a dangerous and inefficient mode of transportation used by a small, wealthy minority.

The phantom menace of the “distracted pedestrian” is just an updated version of the same tactic. In bringing it to pass, local and state lawmakers are once again getting an assist from one of the world’s most storied car companies. The 2017 Ford Fusion included a new feature called Pre-Collision Assist, which uses a combination of radar and cameras to scan the roadway and identify objects blocking it. Fair enough—except that Ford is advertising Pre-Collision Assist as a way to defend the driver against “petextrians.” The company website states, “By identifying the problem that petextrians pose to drivers and creating a new technology to combat and prevent this issue, we have reaffirmed our commitment to making the roads safer for everyone.” A company engineer helpfully added, “We were startled to see how oblivious people could be of a 4,000-pound car coming toward them.” In a battle between one person wearing clothing and shoe-leather and another wearing a speeding, combustible two-ton metal machine, Ford wants us to believe that the former is the real threat.

If there were anything close to a “petextrian” epidemic, it would be a textbook example of a self-inflicted harm. (A collision between a driver and a careless pedestrian has never ended with the driver being killed.) More to the point, the evidence that rising traffic deaths are the direct result of distracted walking has never been anything but anecdotal. In July, the National Transportation Safety Board released a comprehensive study showing that motor-vehicle speed is the factor most heavily correlated with death or severe injury on the road. Tara Goddard, who teaches transportation engineering at Texas A&M, told me in an email, “I’ve seen studies looking at pedestrian distraction, both observation (in the real world) and using virtual reality. But neither of those observed or included, respectively, distracted drivers. Part of that is methodological, since it is much easier to observe pedestrian behavior than the behavior of someone in a car, and police reporting is currently very much dependent on the survivor getting to tell the story.” While acknowledging that pedestrians sometimes do things they shouldn’t, Goddard wrote, “When automotive companies are literally adding online shopping to the in-car tech, I don’t think this focus on pedestrians, which has no empirical basis that I’ve seen, is constructive.”

What’s the motive force behind this new round of ped-shaming tactics? The advent of the driverless car.

So what’s the motive force behind this new round of ped-shaming tactics? It’s an offstage, but rapidly looming, disruption of American car culture: the advent of the driverless car. There’s a lot to love about the idea of autonomous vehicles. Aside from the technological marvel of a giant, fast-moving computer on wheels, AVs promise a future with less stress, fewer crashes, and a less chaotic streetscape. A growing body of research has found that autonomous vehicles could also yield major environmental benefits if they are powered electrically and operated as shared vehicles. Automakers themselves largely seem to have signed onto this version of the future — former GM executive Bob Lutz has even gone on record predicting “the end of the automotive era.”

Much about this future remains a mystery, but we do already know that compared to human drivers, autonomous vehicles will be very conservative and risk-averse. Computers, after all, are designed to follow rules. For almost a decade, Google has been testing driverless cars in California. During one test in 2009, the New York Times writes that the car “couldn’t get through a four-way stop because its sensors kept waiting for other (human) drivers to stop completely and let it go. The human drivers kept inching forward, looking for the advantage—paralyzing Google’s robot.” Google cars have been rear-ended while stopping to yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian, and in 2015 one was pulled over in Silicon Valley for driving too slowly. Crashes between autonomous vehicles and human-driven cars have occurred, but in almost all cases, the human driver was found to be at fault.

In recent years, major car companies have joined Silicon Valley giants in developing and testing autonomous vehicles, but adapting the engineering marvel to our existing, hyper-individualist car culture remains a tricky task. In a November article in Wired, Aarian Marshall joked, “If the Silicon Valley motto is ‘move fast and break things,’ Detroit’s seems to be ‘move below the speed limit and ensure you don’t kill anyone.’” His experience in a GM driverless car in San Francisco was mixed: On one hand, Marshall says, “the whole thing felt very safe” and the car was exceedingly polite towards pedestrians, cyclists, and other vehicles. On the other, cars “stop at the hint of danger, sometimes slamming on the brakes and throwing passengers forward in their seats.”

What this means is that AVs will rupture the unspoken contract between automakers and drivers. Currently, automakers simply make the machines; they’re conveniently able to profit off their creations and then wash their hands of responsibility if a vehicle’s actual operator does something stupid or dangerous. Meanwhile, pedestrians on car-choked city streets are kept timid and obedient by the very real threat of a driver striking and killing them at any time, with the law poised to take the side of the driver. (Even when drivers who kill pedestrians are found to be legally in the wrong, punishments are often minimal.) In other words: Take an aggressive, entitled jerk driving a souped-up BMW and replace him with a law-abiding computer. What happens next?

A recent paper by urban-planning professor Adam Millard-Ball uses game theory to outline three possible answers to this question. The first hypothetical outcome is “human drivers,” i.e., drivers choose to continue manually operating their cars because it affords them greater speed and flexibility. (It’s unclear whether insurers would even be willing to cover human drivers once a much safer alternative appears, but that’s another issue.) Millard-Ball’s second scenario is “regulatory response”; here, “laws are changed to reduce pedestrian priority . . . enforcement action against jaywalkers and similar violators is stepped up, and legislation specifies that an autonomous vehicle manufacturer is not liable for any collision where a pedestrian was unlawfully present in the roadway.” The third scenario speaks for itself: “pedestrian supremacy.”

The specter of a road system once more ruled by pedestrians seems all but unimaginable to anyone living outside a handful of city cores where pedestrians already dominate. Speculating on this future has mostly been done from the driver’s perspective; a typical article included phrases like “jaywalking paradise” and “gridlock hell.” The Drive, Time Magazine’s website devoted to cars and car culture, summarized Millard-Ball’s paper by worrying that “pedestrians could bully self-driving cars into gridlock.” Put another way: Pedestrians, long shunted to the margins of America’s transportation system and left to fend for themselves, would now be empowered to walk when and where they please, reclaiming their equal right to move about the city.

As it turns out, when cities are safer for pedestrians (even the distracted ones), they are safer for everyone. The U.S. cities with the lowest rate of traffic deaths tend to also be cities where pedestrians are common and driving is a pain. Aggressive enforcement of jaywalking ordinances will never solve what is ultimately a problem of road design. There are also inescapable racial overtones to where pedestrian infrastructure is located and where jaywalking laws are enforced. The appalling findings of a recent ProPublica investigation into predatory treatment of black pedestrians in Jacksonville, Fla., are not a fluke; in almost all states, people of color face a disproportionate risk of being killed while walking, as do residents of low-income neighborhoods generally. (In Louisiana, nonwhites comprise 39 percent of the state’s population but account for 85 percent of all pedestrian deaths.)

The word “petextrian” is a preemptive attempt by automakers and their allies to invent a menace that’s a worthy successor to the jaywalker of a century ago.

But ideology is more powerful than factoids and percentages. Car companies have always sold their product to the American public on the premise that fast mobility, dominance, and segregation from the hoi polloi are the driver’s natural birthright. If our cities suddenly become filled with emboldened, safe pedestrians, the whole mythology upon which car culture is founded would crumble into dust. Car companies know all too well that this is one possible version of the future. Hence the “petextrian”: a preemptive attempt by automakers and their allies to invent a menace that’s a worthy successor to the jaywalker of a century ago. The goal, as it has always been, is a transportation system in which people on foot are shamed and regulated into submission for the sake of people in cars.

Gratifying as it is for aggrieved pedestrians to lash out at individual dangerous drivers, America’s deadly roads are a structural problem requiring a structural solution. In the last few years, several cities have adopted an approach to traffic safety known as “Vision Zero,” first pioneered in Sweden in the 1990s. Unlike traditional approaches to traffic safety that treat fatal collisions as inevitable byproducts of an auto-centric society, Vision Zero places design and data at the forefront of road safety. All road users are inevitably going to make mistakes, the theory goes; we should therefore engineer our roads to ensure that none of those mistakes are fatal. Amid rising traffic deaths nationwide, two pioneer Vision Zero cities, New York and San Francisco, both experienced their lowest number of traffic fatalities in history. Los Angeles, which once exported its anti-pedestrian regulations to the rest of the nation, has also adopted Vision Zero—an audacious and important step for the historic center of American car culture.

But despite the best efforts of forward-thinking urban planners, we can fully expect the profitable regime of car-sponsored ped-shaming to continue, egged on by news reports that smear dead pedestrians, government agencies that treat walking as a suspect activity, and car-company executives who accidentally let the mask slip when they’re tasked with programming their driverless cars to respond in crisis situations. This doesn’t mean that crossing the street while distracted on a smartphone is some sort of commendable civic statement, akin to how many New Yorkers view jaywalking. (After one too many close calls, I’ve managed to get in the habit of putting away my own phone when I cross the street—and, yes, I feel much safer for it.) But it does mean that anyone who cares about making cities safer and more equitable should be ready to take the side of pedestrians, even when emotional, error-prone humans are no longer the ones behind the wheel. People who choose to take in the city with all five senses, rather than observe it behind tinted glass, should have the right to do so without harassment or fear.