Comment of the Week: ‘Distracted walking’ is the ‘all lives matter’ of transportation

Posted by on June 28th, 2019 at 7:45 am

(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

It’s be too long since we put the spotlight on one of your great comments. Let’s try to do this more often shall we? If you see a great comment, just hit “reply” and write “comment of the week”. If you do that, I can find the best comments in a quick search.

OK, onto the comment…

Last week (or so) we highlighted a noteworthy exchange at Portland city council during a discussion about the bureau of transportation’s vision zero program. As city staff outlined their approach of “shared responsibility” and made it clear that people using cars have to do a better job not running into people outside of cars, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty expressed discomfort. She said some of PBOT’s vision zero work is making roads “confusing” and is “making people lose their minds”. Hardesty also instructed PBOT to spend more time on people who walk around with their heads buried in their phones, saying people who are distracted by electronic devices are a “huge issue.”

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Reader Glenn II wasn’t having it. Here’s his response to Hardesty’s comments:

“Look, I feel disgust and pity for people glued to their phones as much as anybody, but ‘distracted walking’ is not a thing as far as I’m concerned. ‘Distracted walking’ is the ‘all lives matter’ of transportation — true in principle, but too often twisted around and used by members of an entrenched and powerful majority, who are responsible for most of the problems — to minimize and shut down the concerns of the minority.

Distracted walking collision: “Oh excuse me,” and get on with your day.

Distracted driving collision: “She is survived by her husband Chad and sons Chad Jr. and Jeremy. Services will be at Johnson’s Funeral Home.”

So no, f— me very much, I’m not falling for that one.”

We have yet to hear a clarification or follow-up from Commissioner Hardesty.

Thank you Glenn and everyone else who chimed in here and on Facebook. As Portland struggles to stem a spate of serious and fatal crashes, how we talk about this problem matters. Whether you agree or disagree with Commissioner Hardesty, her comment spurred an important dialogue that should make our policies and actions more effective.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

29 Comments
  • Avatar
    Justin June 28, 2019 at 7:59 am

    We need more Leah Treat side-eye for drivers creeping up on people .

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      Oldguyluvs2ride June 28, 2019 at 8:16 am

      May 15, 2019

      Mayor Ted Wheeler,

      I just listened to the Talking Beat podcast related to traffic safety. I have to say that I am very disappointed with some of the comments made and attitudes displayed by our two officers. The comment by Sgt. Engstrom that really struck me was this one: “My goal personally, my goal is not to punish people and impact their lives and their livelihoods with a bunch of fines and things like that. That’s not what I really want to do. I want to have licensed, insured, safe (emphasis mine) drivers. So, if I can help them understand that and change their attitudes and behaviors with regards to those topics in some other way, then I’m all about that”. Drivers speeding, blowing red lights, and not stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks are a pretty good indicator that they are not safe drivers (and that behavior increases the chance that the unsafe driver will “punish” and/or “impact” the life of another road user). As someone who is mostly a vulnerable road user now, I also want drivers to be safe and a good ol’ talking to by an officer does not have the same effect as a $150 or more ticket for a moving violation in tandem with the probability of increased insurance premiums. I have paid for 2 moving violations in 52 years of driving (one at age 18 and one at age 62) and both of those tickets made me a better driver.

      I live in the Hawthorne district. I can tell you from my daily experience that at least 25% of the cars are traveling at more than 10 MPH over the speed limit in free-flowing conditions on SE Hawthorne, particularly on the downhill portion westbound from SE 27th and the entire stretch of Hawthorne from SE 30th to SE 50th where the speed limit has been reduced to 20 MPH. I urge you to try to cross at an unmarked intersection on SE Hawthorne (at any corner in the SE 20’s or from SE 30th to SE 34th). Count the number of drivers that pass you before any stop. And after one or two do stop, be very careful as you cross because there is a very good chance that a driver in the third or fourth lane you are crossing will not stop. As I age, I look forward to being able to walk & bike in this neighborhood but it is already very challenging and I know that it is even worse in the high-crash corridors.

      I also found Sgt. Engstrom’s choice of words interesting in this instance: “I’m not going to say that it’s all the car’s fault (emphasis mine), all the bicyclist’s fault, all the pedestrian’s fault.” Do you see what he does here? He dehumanizes the situation/crash (“car’s fault”), he takes the driver out of the equation. It is this subtle nod to car culture that will prevent us from ever getting to Vision Zero. If our traffic enforcement people think of it as not “the car’s fault”, even subconsciously, there is a very good chance that it will influence their thinking when it comes to enforcement. I absolutely agree that all road users must pitch in to help eliminate traffic mayhem. Vision Zero is a lofty goal and one that Portland could be proud to achieve but the culture in our police department and our government leaders must evolve for us to have any chance of reaching it. I trust and hope that you and Chief Outlaw will be change agents to help us get there.

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        B. Carfree June 28, 2019 at 9:45 am

        This is why we need to mandate that cops ride bicycles to work at least one shift per week. They need to experience first hand what it’s like on the other side of the wind shield, otherwise they are simply too prone to tribal identification with car culture. I think public works employees should also be required to ride on the infra they design, build and maintain for the same reason.

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          Fred June 28, 2019 at 1:24 pm

          I agree with you, but getting police to do anything is almost impossible. Remember all of those well-intentioned ordinances that would have required police to live within the municipalities they police? Didn’t work out so well. (Sorry to be a wet blanket.)

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            Toby Keith June 28, 2019 at 10:47 pm

            It would help if we had a mayor with a spine that had cops do their job.

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              SERider July 1, 2019 at 9:05 am

              You’re thinking of a different form of city government. One where the mayor actually has more power than city council……

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            encephalopath June 29, 2019 at 12:40 pm

            That continues to be a problem for policing in this city and others. Something like 80% of Portland Police don’t live in Portland. They live in Clark County or outer Clackamas County.

            They don’t consider themselves to be one of us. We’re the enemy to be managed and controlled with the application of violence and the strictures of regular visits to a probation officer. They function as an occupying force . Community policing is impossible when the police don’t consider themselves to be member of the community.

            Transportation issues suffer from the same dynamic. They don’t bike or walk in the city. Their only interaction with the urban environment comes from behind a windshield.

            The same thing happens with the New York City police. They don’t know anything about biking or walking in the city. They’re all from goddamn New Jersey.

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              SERider July 1, 2019 at 9:09 am

              How can they afford to live IN the city? My neighbor in outer SE was a police officer in Beaverton. He, like many officers, didn’t want to live in the same city he worked in (issues with conflict of interest and running into people in regular life that you see on the job). He only got his house in what was then the worst neighborhood in SE Portland because he bought a gut-job house with a police/fire/educator rehab loan at the bottom of the market 8 years ago.

              Do we really think that police officers can afford to live in the central city of Portland today?

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              Dave July 1, 2019 at 9:42 am

              Could it be a possible recruiting perk if PDX police officers were guaranteed favorable pricing on any housing in Portland city limits? We need to start regulating the cost of housing if we don’t want favelas and Hoovervilles in more places than they already are–this might be a good place to start.

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        John Lascurettes June 28, 2019 at 9:47 am

        Bravo

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      • Avatar
        Fred June 28, 2019 at 1:21 pm

        I think *THIS* is the comment of the week!

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    I wear many hats June 28, 2019 at 11:08 am

    Well said Glenn II !

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    farron June 28, 2019 at 1:32 pm

    at this point, it disheartens me utterly how motorists continue to win, and their encroachment upon our literal survival looms larger month after month.

    Best of luck to you with those distracted walkers out there, Hardesty! Looks like you have a real handle on the source of all our problems. /s

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    bikeninja June 28, 2019 at 2:32 pm

    It seems like this “distracted walker” trope is just another way for the happy motoring crew to say, ” we don’t like it when the non-auto’ed folk fail to show us the proper respect and subservience. Like when the peasants fail to bow their head when the knight rides by.

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  • Rivelo
    Rivelo June 29, 2019 at 6:00 am

    I don’t know if this story was mentioned on BP — it happened in England, not Portland — but here’s a link, nonetheless:

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/21/cyclist-crashed-into-woman-mobile-phone-pay-compensation-london?mc_cid=36423ec470&mc_eid=4a7b4677af

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      9watts June 29, 2019 at 5:22 pm

      Weird, man.

      “She was looking at her mobile phone when crossing the road while the lights were green for traffic, and only noticed Hazeldean approaching at the last moment.”

      So if I am reading that correctly: traffic = vehicles, i.e., not the woman looking at her phone, which suggests the man riding the bike had the right of way…? I think I’m missing something.

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      sorne June 29, 2019 at 6:28 pm

      “Cyclists must be prepared at all times for people to behave in unexpected ways.”

      The Judge has it exactly right.

      As the more dangerous mode, a person cycling should do everything they possibly can to cede right of way to a more vulnerable mode. And just as a person driving should be held strictly liable when they plow into and severely injure a more vulnerable human being, so should someone riding a bike.

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        9watts June 30, 2019 at 7:09 am

        Well, sure.
        But lights, right of way, traffic control devices do still mean something. And if in this instance the woman on her phone was crossing against the light as the article seems to suggest then I don’t think your blanket statement is very helpful.

        Behaving in unexpected ways is one thing. Crossing against the light while staring at your phone is another. That isn’t unexpected; it is illegal and rightly so.

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          soren June 30, 2019 at 12:40 pm

          Who are you and what have you done to 9watts?

          I must say that it’s weird to see you arguing so strenuously in favor of the legal primacy of traffic signals — devices that were created solely for and by people who drive.

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            9watts June 30, 2019 at 5:36 pm

            Well, unlike you and sorne there is only one of me.
            If the courts hadn’t gotten involved and fined this guy so much I might not care.
            And it doesn’t sound like either was seriously injured.

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              soren July 1, 2019 at 12:27 pm

              “The court heard that Brushett was one of a “throng” of people trying to cross the road at the start of rush-hour. ”

              When I see a throng of people crossing I typically try to avoid buzzing them at ~15 mph.

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    • Avatar
      Glenn II June 30, 2019 at 2:00 pm

      This is a rather labored but interesting counter-example. Labored because I bet bike-on-pedestrian collisions like this happen at least 3 orders of magnitude less often than motorized-on-pedestrian ones. And out of those that do happen, most are completely inconsequential, so the fatality rate is not just correspondingly lower but even lower, maybe 4 or 5 orders of magnitude lower… like single digits or less than 1 per year in the US, never mind the UK. (I don’t know the exact figures.) So it’s probably similar to a school shooting in that way: interesting due to its rarity, and therefore wildly overrepresented in the news.

      But it’s interesting because, as I said (in three words: “true in principle”), walking without looking is indeed more bad than good (just like all lives do matter). Particularly when it causes you to break an actual law that exists. But at that point it’s the breaking of the law that’s bad; it doesn’t really matter why, and the court needn’t particularly concern itself with the reason. Unless they want to be either lenient on someone who broke a law while saving 500 people’s lives, or extra harsh on someone who was in the process of various despicable acts. Looking at your phone is kind of in the middle in “so what?” territory.

      Anyway, putting yourself in front of someone in motion, in such a way that they don’t have time to react and prevent a collision, makes it your fault. You decided; they didn’t. That seems fair. (Though if you happen to be a “vulnerable road user” at the time and they aren’t, you pay a disproportionately high price for your transgression, which in my book starts to go over into being unfair.)

      But this particular decision is ridiculous because it subverts all of that, and seems to reflect at least two common biases: one against cyclists and one in favor of pretty people. But if it had been a car, she might be too dead right now to blame others for her mistakes. And the dude who hit her might be facing manslaughter-level charges.

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        Glenn II June 30, 2019 at 2:05 pm

        Wish I could go back and edit to add: I’m supposing here that due to the general proliferation of traffic laws over the years, most truly dangerous things are illegal also; such that if you obey the law you will mostly also be safe. But there are exceptions to even that.

        Also: My point at the end there, is that the hypothetical presence of a car in the interaction introduces disproportion; it creates externalities. We don’t need “people crossing” fearing for their lives, and we don’t need “people with the right of way” worrying about killing someone.

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    dunnoaboutthat June 30, 2019 at 1:29 am

    Comparing Hardesty’s statement to someone saying “All Lives Matter” doesn’t feel right to me. What you’re implying is that cyclists have it as bad as African Americans in this city, and that’s just not so. The most distributing aspect of this blog is that there’s a been a long-standing insensitivity and myopia around race-related matters.

    Jonathan: I hope you think long and hard about why this comparison is problematic, and how it would come off to African Americans in this town.

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      El Biciclero July 2, 2019 at 9:22 am

      So is there no room for comparison if there is a full acknowledgement of the disparity in scale and depth of injustice? I see how using the exact same phrase “all [your things here] matter” might come off as flippant, but there are all kinds of contexts, not least transportation/road use, where there are injustices as well. Sure, driver/auto vs. bicyclist/pedestrian, or bicyclist vs. pedestrian “injustices” are seemingly more temporary and less severe (unless someone is truly injured or dies) than the systemic race issues we continue to deal with, but the comparison is valid:

      Powerful majority works hard to maintain a status quo in which the less powerful minority suffers, and the majority works just as hard to convince everyone the minority did it to themselves.

      Certainly this scenario, which has existed since the dawn of humankind, plays out in more and less severe ways in different facets of life, but how do we talk about less severe—but still important—manifestations of, dare I say, “oppression”, without offending folks who legitimately struggle under arguably more severe and insidious forms?

      …Asking for a white friend…

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      9watts July 2, 2019 at 9:45 am

      “What you’re implying is that cyclists have it as bad as African Americans in this city.”

      Except that Glenn-with-the-many-monikers didn’t write, didn’t compare what Hardesty was asserting to, Black Lives Matter, but to *All Lives Matter*, which if you are paying attention is a completely different statement.

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    9watts June 30, 2019 at 8:13 am

    From the earlier article linked to the one Rivelo introduced us to above:
    “Even where a motorist or cyclist had the right of way, pedestrians who are established on the road have right of way.”

    If people violating multiple laws are found to nevetheless also, by virtue of being pedestrians, have the right if way—as do those operating legally—then I think we have crossed into fairyland, into territory where culpability and justice are impossible to establish.

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    Dave July 1, 2019 at 7:26 am

    Commissioner Hardesty needs to realize that, in the absence of enforcement actions to control driver behavior, black and brown citizens will also be victims of those under regulated, under punished drivers.

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