The Strange Case of “Pedestrian Error” at Columbia SE and Santa Clara

Conducting some further research on Yale Boulevard, site of Monday’s hit-and-run crash that has left cyclist Ronald Brinkey on life-support, I was directed to recently conducted traffic/crime studies of Yale and surrounding streets for the active, very active, Victory Hills Neighborhood Association.

Those studies make very interesting reading and are an important part of ongoing study and advocacy toward making the area safer. While many things are worth mentioning from the findings, a bewildering case of “pedestrian error” sticks our most so far.

Our “error” happens on Columbia SE at Santa Clara. Columbia parallels Yale to the east, and intersects with Santa Clara at the SE corner of Fairview Cemetery.


In case you don’t make it to the corner of Columbia and Santa Clara very often, it’s an interesting story of *neighborhood advocacy. Some years back, locals persuaded the City to block Santa Clara at Columbia, citing dangerous drivers using the street to zoom back and forth from Yale. The intersection also features a “traffic circle,” blocked on its eastern side.

Now that we have you somewhat familiar with the lay of the Columbia/Santa Clara land, let’s begin our case of perplexing “pedestrian error.” Here’s a screenshot from the area crash study with a birds’ eye view of the intersection and a list of crashes in the study period.

pedestrian error huh

Note the pedestrian injury crash listed immediately above. Now look at the intersection/traffic circle. And look at the “highest contribution factor,” “pedestrian error.” And back at the traffic circle. And back at the “highest contribution factor.”

If you “shampoo, rinse, repeat” as often as I did last night, repeatedly staring back and forth between “pedestrian error” and that photo, you may very well end up with the same question I have: How the Hell can a pedestrian being struck at this traffic circle be “pedestrian error”?  Yes, as seen below, this is a poorly signed and badly painted traffic circle, but it’s a (insert obscenity here) traffic circle. It’s a series of crosswalks. If a person walks in front of a car, the car is supposed to stop. And it’s not the pedestrian’s fault it is so poorly signed/striped, as noted in the crash study:

Notably, the intersection does not have specific roundabout traffic signage preceding or in the middle of the roundabout. Instead it uses right-pointing chevron direction signs. In the case of northbound traffic on Columbia, the chevron sign points traffic toward the barrier blocking Santa Clara through-traffic. Further, while a typical traffic circle or roundabout has all sides yield to oncoming vehicles, only one side (Santa Clara eastbound) has a yield sign. Whether by design or due to missing signage, this presents a confusing exception to typical driver expectations at similar intersections. As shown above, three of five crashes were in poorly lit hours, further supporting the possibility that general signage and visibility may be an issue.

columbia signage

Obviously, not much is known about this particular incident (and I’m all ears on finding out more), but based merely on the study and a couple of photos, it seems extremely unlikely that “pedestrian error” is really the cause of this crash.

Studies have noted the overuse of “pedestrian error” on police crash reports, due to a number of factors including the unfortunate fact that police only have the driver to interview, as the pedestrian is dead. That, combined with near universal misunderstanding of the rights of those walking our streets, and the “magic wand” of liability that comes with chalking up “pedestrian error” as the cause, create a set of circumstances in which the term is overused and blame of the victim overstated.

Anyone crossing Columbia SE on foot at the traffic circle has the right-of-way. Yes, things become problematic when it comes to how much time the driver has to slow down/stop, but the sight lines here are good and the time posted for the crash is 6:00 p.m., which would make it sunlit almost all year (more research would be needed on that), and…

have I mentioned it’s a traffic circle? Full of designated crosswalks?

One acknowledged element leading to overstating pedestrian error is the Uniform Crash Report itself, the strangely quaint and woefully inadequate reporting form used by police to document crashes. Handwritten and with boxes for little hand-drawn stick-figure illustration to indicate positions of cars, etc., there have been increasing efforts by entities like the National Highway Traffic Safety Association to update methods of crash reporting and make reporting more uniform between states.

Having researched a few New Mexico (BernCo/APD) crash reports, one very noticeable thing about the NM Uniform Crash Report (UCR) is it’s overwhelmingly all about cars smashing into one another. Which is interesting if one considers that right about 25% of all NM traffic fatalities are now pedestrians or cyclists.

Work is ongoing to update the UCR, including details beyond simple “pedestrian error,” and it will be interesting to see how these updates improve our knowledge of what’s happening on our roadways. For now, I’m off to make an IPRA request on the “pedestrian error” noted above. I’ll let you know what I eventually find out.


*I am informed this morning that discussions are ongoing that might lead to elimination of the blockage at Columbia/Santa Clara. Those conversations must be very interesting.



3 thoughts on “The Strange Case of “Pedestrian Error” at Columbia SE and Santa Clara

  1. If I recall from my time in Seattle, even those very car-oriented cops admitted on their traffic reports that about 80% of all crashes with peds and bikes were due to :”failure to yield” by the the driver. Here it is something in the teens, I think. I don’t think that many of cops in Albuquerque know what “failure to yield” even is. Or even what a crosswalk is, for that matter.


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