The (Many) Issues with Blaming the Victims in Pedestrian Deaths in Long Beach

As the first half-year comes to a close, Long Beach is experiencing a tragic realization: the number of pedestrian killed by vehicles has already surpassed the total number of 2014. Even worse? The year-to-year of June 2013/14 to June 2014/15 has nearly tripled from four pedestrian fatalities to eleven. And the first half of 2015 brought on six pedestrian deaths, an average of one for every month.

But what remains baffling is the discussion surrounding the increase. Talks of lowering speed limits or improving street-crossings for pedestrians hasn’t been addressed. In fact, pedestrians are being told to not drink and not wear dark clothes by the press in Long Beach.


Of course, anyone should approach an article titled “6 Reasons Pedestrian Deaths Are Up This Year” with raised eyebrows because we know how traditional media approaches these things: call the cops, ask for reasons, and play on those reasons provided. (RememberABC San Francisco newsanchor Dan Noyes‘s horrifying #DidntLook campaign?)

But if one examines the tragedies that have plagued Long Beach streets this year, the reasons the Press-Telegram provided are, if anything, nothing but pedestrian shaming. And if we’ve learned anything like when a D.C. safety campaign blames victims for their deaths, we know that issues arise.

This is not to say that attributing this increase to drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians’ growing distractions from mobile devices (along with secondary factors including intoxication, jaywalking and limited visibility due to the pedestrians’ selection of dark clothing) is necessarily wrong across the board. Let’s get one thing clarified: distractions from any person—be it a driver, bicyclist or pedestrian—is a catalyst for crashes. But the reality is that pedestrians are the most vulnerable of anyone near or on a street and the fact that we have major publications telling pedestrians to not wear dark clothes instead of telling drivers to escape the bubble of their death-if-it-hits-someone car is just flat out wrong—across the board.

Even more is the fact that their “reasons” weren’t directly related (or at least confirmed as being a part of) the reasons these deaths occurred.

In fact, in the six reported cases of collisions on Long Beach’s city streets resulting in pedestrian fatalities over the past six months, intoxication of the drivers or pedestrians was not identified as a cause at all. Yes, some took place at night; dark clothing could have been a factor but so could inadequate street lighting or a driver simply not paying attention—but none of these were confirmed.

Ultimately, nothing is mentioned about texting while driving, the vulnerability of pedestrians—mainly pointing out that one person is driving a two-ton piece of metal that travels at deathly speeds while the others are, well, walking—or street design/speed limits that contributes to a lack of safety for pedestrians. (On that last note: don’t wear dark clothing or else you’ll get hit? Quite like telling women to not wear revealing clothing because they might get raped—a horrific argument. A chastity belt will assist vulnerable women while a helmet and reflective clothing will assist vulnerable walkers.)

So surely, there has not been any single cause common to these collisions—but there are some common threads based on the victims and incident locations.

Let’s first overview the pedestrian deaths:

Despite some misunderstandings on this point, pedestrians are generally afforded the right to legally cross streets at unmarked intersections. California Vehicle Code Section 21950 states that “the driver of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within any marked crosswalk or within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection, except as otherwise provided in this chapter.” But “This section does not relieve a pedestrian from the duty of using due care for his or her safety.”

And let us not forget: jaywalking is a “crime” that was created by none other than the auto industry and used a form of pedestrian shaming—so let’s not try to go down the road that people just need to steer clear of the streets because it is illegal or needed so people can travel 40MPH without turning their heads.

The ultimate issue is this: as our streets become more crowded and more people depend less on cars (even when they can afford one), we need to have a heightened awareness for those who are most vulnerable (including the elderly and less affluent). And those who operate vehicles that potentially act lethally should be handed the most responsibility. Widely dismissing the role drivers play doesn’t make our streets safer nor does telling everyday people who use their feet that they should be wearing armor before stepping outside.

We are in this together and we are all responsible for behaving safely so let’s shift the concentration of safety efforts away from pedestrian shaming and on the matter at hand: safer streets.

This ultimately means a very tough discussion about reexamining our streets and, even more, reexamining the many myths we create in our heads as drivers (including that where we are going and how we are getting there is our right rather than a responsibility and privilege). It means talking about how to decrease speed limits. It means recognizing that adding a few more minutes to your commute is worth a human life.

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 16 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.