ODOT to distribute reflective arm bands to keep people safe – UPDATED

New arm bands being given away by
ODOT to help remedy uptick
in fatalities.
(Photo: ODOT)

As reported by The Oregonian this morning, the Oregon Department of Transportation has launched a traffic safety campaign. Under the ‘See and be seen’ banner, ODOT’s effort is aimed squarely at what they see as a major problem on Oregon’s roads — people who walk in the evening and at night while wearing dark clothing.

“Dark colored clothing and coats may look chic, but at night or on cloudy days, they can make pedestrians almost invisible,” reads the opening paragraph of the ODOT statement, “Every year in Oregon, the majority of pedestrian fatalities occur at night or in low-light hours. In 2010, 74 percent of the fatal pedestrian crashes occurred during low-light conditions. More than half of the pedestrians killed were wearing dark clothing and were not visible.”

To help people stay safe, ODOT’s Transportation Safety Division (a division with a $48.7 million annual budget) is giving away “reflective safety sashes and arm bands that people can wear over their clothes.” ODOT has teamed up with community groups to distribute the new safety accessories.

On their website, ODOT shares these tips for people to keep in mind while walking:

  • Wear bright or reflective clothing or shoes when walking at night. Avoid dark clothes; drivers can’t avoid what they can’t see.
  • Stay sober; walking while impaired increases your chance of being struck.
  • Don’t wear headphones or talk on a cell phone while crossing the street.
  • Watch out for motorists’ blind spots.
  • Remain alert! Don’t assume that cars are going to stop.
  • Be aware of vehicles around you. Make eye contact with motorists before crossing paths.
  • Use crosswalks and sidewalks whenever possible.
  • Look left, right and left again before crossing. Watch for turning cars.

And they also offer tips for “motorists”:

  • Watch for pedestrians especially at night.
  • Expect and slow for pedestrians in popular walking areas and near crosswalks.
  • Drive at cautious speeds in rainy weather and in low-light areas.

ODOT’s focus on non-vehicle road users comes from statistics that show, while the total number of fatal traffic crashes is trending downward, those involving people on foot are not. In 2010, 60 people were killed while walking on Oregon roads (after a low of 37 in 2009) making it the deadliest year for non-vehicle road users in over half a century.

This campaign also continues the trend at ODOT of hinting toward blame in these fatalities on the non-vehicle road users.

Back in January, the manager of ODOT’s Traffic Safety Division, Troy Costales signed onto a press release by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) and blamed “aggressive pedestrians” for the uptick. “We are familiar with aggressive drivers; we now have aggressive pedestrians,” was his exact quote. The GHSA also insinuated that the success of the active transportation movement sweeping the country was to blame. Getting more people out of their houses and cars and into the streets, they said, “may cause pedestrian exposure, and thus risk, to increase.”

In their statement about the See and be Seen effort, ODOT piles on a long list of statistics to make the case that when people are killed while walking in Oregon, it is usually their own fault. Here are the stats ODOT presented to the media:

  • 12 of the 62 pedestrians killed (19.4%) were not coded as having contributed to the crash that killed them. [meaning, over 80% were to blame for their own death]
  • 46 of the 62 crashes (74%) involving a pedestrian fatality occurred at night or in low light hours.
  • 49 of the 62 pedestrians killed (79%) were not in an intersection: (45 were walking along a road, crossing the street at a location other than an intersection or crosswalk, etc.)
  • 44 of the 62 pedestrians killed (71%) were illegally in the roadway. This is an increase from the average of 35 percent over the last five years.
  • 13 of the 62 pedestrians killed (21%) were at an intersection when they were struck. (8 of the 13 (61.5%) were coded with an error (i.e. failed to yield right-of-way, disregarded traffic control device, etc.)
  • 33 of the 62 pedestrians killed (53%) were wearing dark clothing (not visible). This is up from an average of 23% over the last five years.
  • 28 of the 62 pedestrians killed (45%) had a positive BAC result. This is an increase from the average of 41% over the last five years.

From the tone and content of the statement, and the statistics presented, it’s clear that ODOT sees the uptick in fatalities of people on foot as being primarily their own fault. Not only is this the agency’s perspective, they are also launching a public relations campaign to promote it throughout the state.

While encouraging good safety habits is great, I feel like the tone of this campaign is a slippery slope toward blaming the victims and favoring the dominant, status-quo user group (people in cars). I hope ODOT will begin to adopt the perspective that non-vehicle road users are a welcome addition to our transportation mix — not just insolent scofflaws who need to arm themselves for battle or suffer tragic consequences.

UPDATE, 10/26 at 9:22 am:
Yesterday I asked Julie Yip with ODOT’s Transportation Safety Division to react to concerns about the tone of this campaign. Read my question and her response below:

J. Maus: What you make of my comments and the reaction from many in the community who think that that campaign goes too far in blaming the victims of those collisions? Do you think that’s a fair concern?

J. Yip:

Jonathan, thanks for asking about the “Be Visible” campaign.

The “Be Visible” campaign is simply encouraging pedestrians to add visibility to their daily routine during the shorter daylight months. It’s significant that the data showed that 74% of the 62 fatal pedestrian-involved crashes in 2010 occurred during low-light conditions and the data was instrumental in directing the focus and timing of the Be Visible campaign.

In past campaigns we’ve focused on driver behavior (e.g., providing an insert in DMV registrations with explanation of the Oregon Crosswalk Law; distributing flyers on Oregon Crosswalk law and Driver Tip brochures), and on sharing the road (e.g., “Whatever your mode, share the road” transit and bus shelter posters). With the waning daylight hours, and using the 2010 pedestrian crash data, it was time to put our efforts towards pedestrians. According to the number of requests received for armbands across the state, this is an effort whose time is right.

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