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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.
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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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