Blaming “Pedestrian Error” in a Case of Illegal Roadway/Sidewalk Design

Update, 10.17.18: A follow-up phone conversation with the victim of the incident outlined below reveals that her injuries were relatively minor and not long-lasting. It is also worth noting that she was not aware the incident had subsequently been deemed “pedestrian error” as the primary cause, and very much disagreed with that finding.

Research through an IPRA request of the official crash report strongly indicates that a 2012 crash blamed on “pedestrian error” and secondarily “driver inattention” was instead primarily caused by poor roadway/sidewalk engineering.

On 6:34 p.m. on September 27, 2012, 61-year-old Jean Cress was riding her wheelchair up the hill eastbound on Santa Clara Avenue SE. There she was struck and injured by a driver entering Santa Clara from a parking lot entrance just west of Columbia Drive SE. As depicted in the official crash report illustration below, Ms. Cress was hit while riding her wheelchair in the street in front of the entrance.


The crash report also includes the following “apparent contributing factors,” status of impairment on the part of Ms. Cress and the driver, and a short narrative of what the reporting officer heard, saw, and determined.


Thus, the finding of the reporting officer was that the primary reason for the crash was that Ms. Cress was riding her wheelchair in the street, and that while the driver stated “that the sun was in her eyes,” they could have been more alert.

Still, the report states “pedestrian error” as the primary reason, and it was with that denotation that Better Burque first read of the case, wrote a bit about it in terms of the nearby traffic circle and diverter at the intersection of Santa Clara and Columbia, and pursued the IPRA request. Crash report in hand, BB investigated the scene this past weekend and followed-up with Google Streetview for historical looks going back to 2011, prior to the crash.


santa clara columbia driveway 1
Entrance from Santa Clara just west of Columbia

As seen above, the entrance to the parking lot at La Vida Nueva Apartments, the large affordable housing site along Santa Clara Avenue, is unusual in many ways. Painted red as a “fire lane,” the entrance does not have ADA-compliant approaches near the street, instead the only way to navigate to the ADA-compliant approach on the westside is to either scale a very steep concrete sloping wall or follow the sidewalk around to a strangely recessed crosswalk.

columbia santa clara driveway II
Entrance further west between Dickerson Drive SE and the site of the crash

As Ms. Cress was going eastbound and resided on Dickerson Drive to the west, BB also looked at this entrance immediately west of the crash site. Here, ADA-compliance is even worse. There is no accessible ramp for the mobility-impaired whatsoever. Even if Ms. Cress was patient enough to follow the circuitous route at the driveway where the crash occurred, she had no way to access that sidewalk in the first place. The illegal engineering of the driveway/sidewalk to the west made sure of that. Google Streetview shots going back to 2011 confirm that the same sidewalk configuration was in place at both driveways on the date of the crash.

As readers might guess, there are no mentions of sidewalk condition anywhere in the five pages of the official Crash Report. In short, Ms. Cress was riding her wheelchair in the street, QED. Ms. Cress is blamed without any look at roadway/sidewalk design, because it is fundamentally assumed that roadway engineering can never be the primary cause of a crash. It is interesting to note that crash reports delve into factors of operator error (e.g., impairment) and forces beyond human control (e.g., weather), but there are no sections of the Uniform Crash Report devoted to analysis of roadway engineering, just simple noting of number of driving lanes and presence of painted center lines.

And, of course, there’s absolutely nothing on the Report pertaining to sidewalk condition, just, as per normal, the simple depiction of “sidewalk” in the drawing above, with zero additional information. In fact, one of many quirks in the current Uniform Crash Report is that there is no real “pedestrian” section on the Report at all. Ms. Cress shows up as “Vehicle No. 1” and would have whether in a wheelchair or walking under her own power.

The tendency toward blanket use of “pedestrian error” to explain injuries and deaths to those walking our roadways has long been noted for its inaccuracy, victim blaming, and resultant inattention to fixing the true problems that are causing many injuries and deaths.

The 2012 crash outlined here is such a case.

The importance of correcting mistakes in determining cause has never been higher. As constantly noted here at BB and around the country, pedestrian fatalities are at record highs and these deaths continue to be essentially dismissed through rationalizations about impairment and “pedestrian error.” Impairment trends toward being involved only slightly more than half the time, although it is certainly proclaimed as being a singularly important cause.

And “pedestrian error,” as seen in the case of Jean Cress, is far too often a false diagnosis, one ignoring our systemic roadway shortcomings in a way that saves taxpayers a ton of money, makes “us” feel far less culpable, and pushes what is a true public health crisis to the far periphery of popular concern and action.





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