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  • Thinking Like a Crosswalk
  • Gretchen E. Henderson (bio)

We use them every day. Across intersections, white stripes stitch together seams of foot traffic. The ubiquitous stripes signal pedestrian paths that network our built environments. Often called "crosswalks," these pedestrian crossings have evolved over the years to curiously accrue animal names like zebra crossings, panda crossings, pelican crossings, toucan crossings, and puffin crossings. To get to the other side, it's hard not to think of the joke about the chicken.

To get to the other side, safe and sound, isn't as easy as it seems. In recent months, it has been reported that pedestrian deaths in some cities are at a thirty-three–year high. The numbers are up from 2016 (the year I was hit by a car in a crosswalk) when it was estimated that every day one hundred people in the United States died from traffic accidents. Deborah Hersman, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and now president and CEO of the National Safety Council, describes this as the equivalent of two regional jets crashing each day, or fourteen plane crashes each week. "If we had 14 plane crashes a week, our hair would be on fire and no one would set foot on an airplane," Hersman stated. "Why do we accept the fatalities that occur on our roadways?" The National Safety Council estimates that traffic accidents in the US last year killed around forty thousand people. While not all of the fatalities were pedestrians in crosswalks, that statistic doesn't include those who survived with serious injuries (including myself) that greatly increase the numbers: upward of 2.5 million.

There's something unnerving about our seeming comfort with these odds. Statistics can leave us bleary from abstraction, so to estimate another way: we're far less likely to be struck by lightning than hit by a car. The odds of being struck by lightning in your lifetime are one out of 136,111, according to Edward Humes in Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation. In contrast, the odds of dying in a car crash are one to 112.

Recall the last time you jumped out of the way of a speeding vehicle or witnessed a collision or its aftermath. If you haven't been hit, you probably know someone who has been—a relative or friend of a friend [End Page 67] (likely less than two degrees of separation). For a nation hooked on cars, with international conflicts over fuel for gas-guzzling vehicles, we have developed a codependent relationship that makes allowances for these "accidents." The convenience and speed seem to outweigh the risks, as personal transportation choices tend to favor vehicles more powerful than we need, often carrying a single person with underutilized cargo space. "A death every fifteen minutes," concludes Humes, "is part of the price tag for that convenience, size, and speed."

Even as cars get safer, many humans behind the wheel still do not recognize risks associated with speed, alcohol, or distraction from technology. As we welcome the convenience, it's easy to overlook the threat—that is, until you are blindsided by a vehicle that comes from behind you in a crosswalk, hitting your side, flipping your body up its hood and then down on pavement, where your head gashes and bleeds. A human body of 125 pounds (as I am) is no match for a steel machine weighing two tons. If you are lucky enough to not have your spine broken, other injuries may take months or years to heal, leaving an indelible impression on your body and brain.

The risks increase along demographic lines. People sixty-five years or older and people of color are more vulnerable to being killed by cars while walking. This disparity is especially stark in places like North Dakota, where Native Americans account for 5 percent of the population and nearly 38 percent of pedestrian deaths. Inequities manifest in other ways. When fear of the Ebola virus raged in the United States in 2014, two people died from the virus, compared with the estimated twelve thousand people killed by drunk drivers that year. The fear of...


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pp. 67-80
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