There is a tiny little pedestrian crossing in the city. There are no traffic lights, just a crossing; and there is an endless stream of people crossing. I use that crossing twice a day. One day last month, I crossed the road and was apparently too slow for the driver of a cane toad-like sports utility vehicle who nosed his vehicle onto the crossing and tooted me. Guess he was desperate to join the queue of motorists inching along Parramatta Road in the city.
I walk somewhere between six and 11 kilometres a day. Where I live, it's quicker to walk than it is to take public transport but it carries a far greater risk. This year in NSW, 29 pedestrians have already been killed, more than one a week; and nearly double where we were same time last year. So far, it's 11 in Queensland and 32 in Victoria.
The vast majority of these deaths are avoidable – last week in NSW, a vehicle went around another car which was stopped at a pedestrian crossing and hit a woman who was crossing. She is still in hospital.
In Australia, the rise of the entitled motorist is ceaseless; and only one group has managed to stem that entitlement in any measurable way. Cyclists are the beneficiaries of the campaign to force motorists to keep a metre's distance from any bicycle. There is no outstanding, memorable campaign – equivalent to campaigns such the A Metre Matters project conducted by the Amy Gillett Foundation – to save pedestrians, although they are at greater risk on our roads than cyclists, far greater.
I don't wish to attack cyclists in any way – their needs are more closely aligned to those of pedestrians than car drivers – but I fear their "four wheels bad, two wheels better" mentality might just distract them from ensuring that all of us involved in active transport should be kept safe. And for those of you about to start bleating about texting and headphones, let me remind you that I could be doing headstands naked on a pedestrian crossing and I should still be safe. Marked pedestrian crossings should be the safest place on earth for a pedestrian to walk.
We are all pedestrians yet we are marginalised – not central to the driving focus of any state government transport department in Australia. Instead, we are shunted to the peripheries of the main traffic flows and the responsibility for pedestrian safety appears to be incumbent on individuals who walk.
You can see that even in the enforcement of jaywalking penalties. At the corner of two very busy streets in Sydney, I've watched police officers book student after student for jaywalking but never once observed a driver of a car pulled over for intimidating a pedestrian, although that happens every single day. I've never once seen a cyclist booked for whizzing along a footpath, pinging bells and skittling the elderly as they go. One rule for people on wheels and another for people on foot.
NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Michael Corboy, of the state's Traffic and Highway Patrol Command, admits the main focus of road safety has been on motorists and getting them to recognise dangerous behaviours, the texting, the speeding, the driving while exhausted. He concedes there hasn't been much focus on how car drivers behave at marked pedestrian crossings, but he has no doubt the dramatic increase in pedestrian fatalities will concentrate the minds of enforcers.
Only this year has a pedestrian representative been added to the traffic committee of the City of Sydney, which is a relief to all of us (although the council doesn't have power over speed limits, ultimately that rests with the state government).
It's thanks to the success of motoring groups such as the NRMA that we see cars and their drivers as a normal part of the environment, entitled to rights and subject to responsibilities. That's as it should be because they are part and parcel of our world. But if we see cars and drivers that way, we must certainly start to see pedestrians that way too.
New York city has witnessed a massive drop in pedestrian deaths, from 184 in 2013 to 101 last year, through reducing the speed limit but also because the city started enforcing the laws. It also rebuilt street corners to slow cars down and changed the way traffic lights functioned to give pedestrians a head start.
The NSW government launched its $11 million pedestrian road safety plan this year aligned with many of the strategies used successfully in New York. But there will need to be much more policing for this to save lives.
We need to rethink the approach to a walking life before too many more lives are lost to impatient drivers.
Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology and a Fairfax Media columnist.
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