When Drivers Hit Pedestrians, Where Do We Lay the Moral Blame?

There’s a rather difficult to watch video over on NBCDFW which shows a dog being run over by an SUV in Oak Lawn.

There’s a rather difficult to watch video over on NBCDFW which shows a dog being run over by an SUV in Oak Lawn. The incident happened at the corner of Cedar Springs Road and Throckmorton. Two women out walking their dogs on Saturday afternoon approach the intersection. The light is green, and as one of the women steps into the crosswalk, an SUV comes around the corner, runs over the dog, and skirts so close to the woman that she is knocked to the ground. The car drives away; the dog reportedly dies a few minutes after the video ends.

It’s an awful scene, but perhaps equally awful is reading the comments beneath the video and on Facebook. Many people who have watched the video have come to the conclusion that the woman walking the dog is at fault for what happened. They note that when she steps into the intersection, she is looking away from the oncoming car, perhaps at traffic on the far side of the road. As a result, she’s blindsided. She should have looked both ways, the comments argue. She should have kept her dog on a shorter leash, some suggest. Only, because this is the internet, the tone of many of the comments is snide and deriding. It’s ugly stuff.

Whose fault is it when someone gets hit by a car? In this case, the video evidence is clear. The pedestrian has the right of way. The car that hit her and her dog didn’t come to a full stop at the intersection. The driver didn’t take care to look ahead to notice the pedestrian, and then drove away after he or she ran over a dog. The driver is clearly at fault. So why do so many people blame the pedestrian?

We’ve been here before, last year when a pedestrian was struck and killed on Travis St. In that incident, blame was again cast on the pedestrian for looking at her mobile phone while she crossed the street. Think about that for one second. Someone died. They were stuck by a car, and then they died. Her family and friends mourned her and buried her. And we sit back and say, “Why did she not look up from her phone?” We live in a world in which forgetting to look up from your cellphone may carry a death sentence. That’s completely nuts.

Yes, pedestrians need to be attentive and aware. But I believe what underpins the knee-jerk reaction of so many people who, when watching something like that video from Oak Lawn, immediately blame the pedestrian is a social assumption that is shaped by the way we design our streets. Road design shapes the way cities functions, but design can also shape the way we understand how and why our cities function in the way they do. In other words, there is a didactic element to urban design. The ordering of place teaches us how we understand and value a place and the people who occupy it. The shape of cities shapes the imagination.

When your city is constructed in such way that it values efficiency and speed for vehicular traffic above all else, taking every opportunity to create a thoughtless, unobstructed environment for drivers, that design teaches the people who live in the city that the public realm values the car over the pedestrian. When a pedestrian interrupts the vehicular environment, he or she demonized for stepping out of line. They are judged to be thoughtless, reckless, or irresponsible because they have invaded a space that the city has instructed us belongs to cars.

But the presumption that the responsibility for personal safety falls more heavily on the pedestrian ignores the reality that people die on our streets not because of thoughtless pedestrians or thoughtless drivers, but rather because of the mediating factor of the multi-ton machines drivers operate.

And that is the key point.  Should we be careful out there when we’re walking around on our unhospitable streets dodging traffic? Of course. When you walk around Dallas, you take your life into your hands. But we should never forget that the machines we drive – and not the people walking around on the streets – are what possess that capacity to kill. They are the amplifying agent in the coming together of a driver and a pedestrian, the thing that transforms an innocent, thoughtless moment into manslaughter. And it is the presence of that capacity to kill that places the majority of the moral responsibility of an accident on the thoughtless driver, and not the thoughtless pedestrian.

That so many people can watch that video of the poor dog dying and think otherwise is a evidence of what a foolish, misguided society a poorly designed city can produce.


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  • billmarvel

    Two feet are far more maneuverable than a car., especially of the operator of the two feel is attentive. If cars and pedestrians are to share the road –and so far there’s no reasonable alternative — both have responsibilities, to themselves and to one another.. To wander into the street distracted, assuming that your two feet bestow some sort of moral privilege is not just arrogant. It’s stupid.

    • Willie Stark

      I bet you give dirty looks to pedestrians legally utilizing the crosswalk because your moral privilege of making a left turn or turning right on red is being impeded. Bill, I bet you don’t even realize a pedestrian has the right of way in a non-signal controlled interesection. Did you know a crosswalk is implied even if not marked? To think that because you are surperior to a pedestrian because you are behind the wheel a 4,000 pound vehicle is not just arrogant. It’s stupid.

      • Bob Sanders

        It’s criminal, Willie.

      • billmarvel

        I always yield the right of way, even to the stupid and the self-absorbed, Stark. I’m not disputing the legal responsibilities here, Stark. I’m, disputing the social and moral responsibilities.

    • BHargrove

      This conversation began in the 1920s, when automakers launched a campaign to head off regulation by vilifying pedestrians. They coined the term “jaywalker.” http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/when-pedestrians-ruled-streets-180953396/?no-ist

    • kinopio

      Drivers have greater responsibilities, seeing as they are the ones operating killing machines. And remind me again, who was here first: pedestrians or cars?

    • Ox-Bow

      Apparently 4 feet make you less maneuverable, as in this case. Hell, even more superior hearing and sight didn’t really help that dog. Bill, your thought process is void of reason and intelligence.

    • dr2chase

      So, what if the pedestrian is not so maneuverable? What if they’re pushing a shopping cart full of rocks into the crosswalk? By your logic, since they’re now less maneuverable, they’re also less responsible for watching out for cars that might hit that shopping cart.

    • Brian Hewitt

      Let me reframe this and take her off her feet and instead put her in a car. Her light was so green that she didn’t think twice about stopping before passing through the intersection. If that sidewalk had been a traffic lane and she were in a car, should she have looked left and behind her when going through the intersection on a green light to ensure the driver in the lane to her left hadnt decide to turn right and slam into her car? Do you do that? Didn’t think so. Whether you want to admit it or not, a sidewalk is a travel lane for humans. I can interchange car, bike, wheelchair, and using her feet and the motorist still came into her lane, still struck her, and stilled killed her dog. The motorist is wrong. I have almost been hit in this same intersection many times. Drivers need to be attentive when driving in populated areas, and realize they aren’t the only ones using the streets, else they shouldn’t drive.

  • Los_Politico

    Dallas drivers almost never come to complete stops. But why would they? We’ve designed our intersections so that drivers can blow through them at angles that encourage high speeds.

    I can think of only one intersection in the area that’s designed for pedestrians: Airline at Mockingbird– the side in HP.

  • BHargrove

    In Dallas, the pedestrian’s life hangs in the balance every time he or she occupies a crosswalk, or crosses at an intersection when a vehicle is making a right-hand turn. Walking in this city can be nothing short of harrowing. I’d wager that nearly every pedestrian in Dallas has had a close brush with an inattentive or aggressive motorist.

  • Mavdog

    “That so many people can watch that video of the poor dog dying and think otherwise is a evidence of what a foolish, misguided society a poorly designed city can produce.”

    no, disagree. It isn’t the fault of the City’s design nor the influence of motor vehicles you point to as the factor.

    The evidence is of what a foolish, misguided society we currently live in where insensitivity and callous disregard for others has permeated its mentality. As well as the internet being a place where individuals can say things they otherwise would be too embarrassed to vocalize in person.

  • Bob Sanders

    Great story, Peter. Just more evidence Dallas is a total shithole.

  • Joe Bob

    As our city becomes more and more dense, we need planners to design, build and maintain more walkable areas. Car drivers and pedestrians share equally the responsibility to use the road safely and mindfully of others, but unfortunately, the consequences of not doing so are incredibly disproportionate for the pedestrian.

    Since we are discussing morality, for the car drivers out there (Presumably nearly all of us) change your driving behavior in densely populated areas, with or without laws or signs or designs to help you. You do not want a lifetime of wondering what I could have done differently to avoid killing that pedestrian.

  • James Scott

    …and you would win every one of those wagers.

  • Carol Benassi

    This is a HUGE pet peeve of mine. No one in DFW gets crosswalks, unless they have lived on the East or West coast. Someone has a green light and is in the crosswalk, you stop. No light, and someone is using a crosswalk, you stop. I have seen this in mall parking lots, the airport and corners like this. Maybe everyone in DFW needs to go back to driver’s ed.

  • Ox-Bow

    It should be remembered that many parts of Dallas were built before the automobile. When train cars ruled urban transit. Even in areas such as this where the maximum speed of a car was 35 to 40 miles per hour, was originally pedestrian friendly. The temerity the Dallas automobile driver infamous. Great article!

  • betty barcode

    I suggest that we all follow the sterling example of the NRA and adopt their slogan: cars don’t kill people, drivers kill people. Enabled, of course, by the design factors so well described by the author.

    Every time a pedestrian gets killed and you say that a car did this or an SUV did that, you prematurely exonerate the driver. The way we talk about collisions (only some of which are accidents), you’d think that American drivers are all helpless back seat passengers. Google did not invent the autonomous, self-driving vehicle, journalists did.

    • J the Rake

      I actually argue that the vast majority of collisions are preventable and predictable, caused by choice not some uncontrollable random event. Very, very few of them are true accidents.

  • John McKee

    I’m not contesting that the driver is 100% at fault, he clearly broke the law and it is difficult to believe that the accident would have happened had he not.

    That said I’m taking the position of the dead dog here, a dog is not a pedestrian, a dog is not aware of traffic laws or traffic safety, dogs are barely viable to cars if at all at close proximity, she had the responsibility to make sure the dog could safely enter the intersection and she failed to do so.

    So yeah, go after the driver, prosecute him to the full extend of the law, go after civil damages but at the end of the day she failed in her responsibilities to her dog to keep it safe in the big scary people world, to me it’s not a question of the legal or moral responsibility between her and the driver but the moral responsibility between her and her dog which is to make sure he can safely cross before letting him run into the street which is a completely separate moral transaction.

  • ccc

    She is at fault for what happened. She is turning around the corner as if to continue around the block before suddenly turning into the crosswalk from behind a telephone pole, in case it was too easy to see what she was doing. Sent bad signals and didn’t look. Did the driver know she was going to enter the crosswalk? I wouldn’t have. This is not Portland, we aren’t accustomed to stop every time someone eyeballs an intersection and it isn’t safe and practical to act like it.

    I wish the law were that easy but it isn’t just “the pedestrian has the right of way”, there are as always a lot of nuances and caveats, like how you can’t step into the street such that oncoming cars don’t have time to react and still have “right of way”. Note: Right of way doesn’t keep you out of the hospital.

    Why would the driver come to a full stop? As you can see in the video, the traffic is flowing in the same axis; the driver has a green light. There is no reason they would stop or slow down more than needed to take the turn, especially since it didn’t even appear as if the lady was going to enter the crosswalk, until the SUV was already in the turn and the lady was possibly popping out from behind the telephone pole or still hidden by it or whatever.

    Is it bad to leave even if it wasn’t your fault? Sure. I want to give benefit of the doubt and say the driver didn’t notice. It’s an SUV and I find bumps in the road at right turns all the time. Most of them are probably worse than a small dog. Lady smashing her face into the side probably wouldn’t stand out much either, especially with radio on. Do you get out to check every time you hit a bump, if you didn’t have any reason to think someone was crossing your path? Maybe you don’t even look back.

    Your hindsight is not their foresight.

    We blame the pedestrian because it is her fault. Same goes for the Travis St. death. Again “pedestrian has the right of way” doesn’t mean you can cross wherever you want and without giving drivers time to accommodate you. If you don’t even look before you step into the street, how can you know if someone is too close? How can you do your part, for despite the common sentiment the pedestrian does have responsibility to fulfill here.

    Yes, someone died, that is terrible. It doesn’t mean we can’t say it was their fault when that’s the question we’re up to discuss. Her friends and family mourned, and meanwhile those of us not in the habit of grieving for strangers will take to dissecting the facts and should-haves of it. This emotional appeal to the tragedy of death doesn’t really add anything.

    “We live in a world in which forgetting to look up from your cellphone may carry a death sentence. That’s completely nuts.”

    Nuts? It’s an irrelevant evaluation. It’s not part of some kind of rational justice system that someone is designing. It’s just what happened. Of course it would be nutso if this were a crime-to-punishment in court, but the world doesn’t come up to our standards of fairness. There are many seemingly insignificant actions that can lead to disastrous results and many people afterward who will say how unfair it was. From all these unfair deaths, it is abundantly clear that many people do not die for fair reasons, and that the lack of fair reason did nothing to stop the deaths. So it seems that it is useless to think about whether it would be fair for this or that. The only fair is the one in your head that you convinced yourself you deserve. There is no fair. Just stay alive.

    I don’t know why you assume that blaming the pedestrian is a knee-jerk, immediate reaction. There are those of us who care enough about this to watch the video carefully and spend good time forming the observations. I didn’t go in expecting to blame the pedestrian but that is unfortunately what I have to do after thorough review, for what it’s worth.

    I would agree that the car’s potential to kill means the driver has a responsibility to be reasonably cautious … not that the driver is supposed to somehow predict and prevent any undesired contacts (or that they are otherwise thoughtless or malicious) — or that the blame afterward should be weighted toward the driver just because they are a driver, and cars can kill people, and it’s sad when people die.

    Honestly I think you’re reading a bit too much into this. I haven’t seen any of this as a broad statement about the relationship between motorists and pedestrians in Dallas. I know you article guys like to bring it back to something general and abstract at the end, but there’s really nothing for you here this time — it’s just a single case with people doing the case-by-case evaluation as we would do with any. The pedestrian as well as the driver and cyclist and everyone else somehow making use of the road all have responsibilities and they each have blame for their failures — there is no one class that is always in the right.

  • J the Rake

    As was commented below these events are not an accident. It behoves us all to stop calling them that if we are to eliminate the causes of most traffic violence. If we continue to call them accidents then most people can blithely go about their day and not worry about it because we can’t control the where and when if it’s just an accident.

  • betty barcode

    When reporters write these stories as though the car acted alone and no driver was involved, I’ve been calling them out with the #DriverNotCar hashtag.