And the Victim Blaming Continues

Caltrans is boasting about its truly tasteless public service announcements. Photo: Caltrans
Caltrans is boasting about its truly tasteless public service announcements. Photo: Caltrans

There was a bit of a dust-up late Friday on Twitter when the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition called out Caltrans over “public service” announcements that blame our most vulnerable road users for their own deaths and injuries.

Caltrans response was to show the SFBC that, yes, cyclists are also to blame for their own deaths and injuries. See the lower right frame:

This new Caltrans series of public service announcements is sure to blame cyclists and pedestrians for not looking better when they get run down.
This new Caltrans series of public service announcements blames cyclists and pedestrians for not looking when they get run down.

This ad is obviously done by the same people who did an ad in Montgomery, Alabama, that holds people responsible for getting run over if they wear dark clothing.

Meanwhile, California’s Office of Transportation Safety released a television ad that concludes by pronouncing that “they’re both wrong” if a pedestrian crosses legally and a car runs a red light. According to them, the pedestrian shares the blame for not paying sufficient attention to anticipate the motorist was going to blow the signal.

And, of course, San Mateo County wants to now make it illegal to look at your phone while crossing the street legally.

As injury attorney Anthony Label posted as part of the Twitter exchange (in response to two more excellent points from the Bicycle Coalition):

With some 700 pedestrians killed each year in California by motorists, that means lots of people have to drive by these awful signs who may have lost a son, daughter, father, mother, friend, or sibling to traffic violence. As the Bike Coalition and Label are pointing out, imagine how these PSAs make them feel?

Blaming vulnerable road users for their own injuries and deaths is cruel and absurd. As this story about a traffic study done in Edmonton, Alberta, showed, the vast majority of car wrecks are with other cars.

And after that: stationary objects.

What’s next? Is Caltrans going to blame telephone poles, parked cars, fire hydrants, buildings, and trees for collisions?

Because telephone poles don’t come with bumpers. Look both ways.

  • Bruce

    I think you’re misinterpreting the ads. I think they are meant to shame drivers into not hitting cyclists and pedestrians, not to shame cyclists and pedestrians.

  • thielges

    The “Look both ways” part seems like it is directed towards pedestrians.

    The problem with ads like these are that they absolve motorists from the basic responsibility to avoid collisions. Of course pedestrians do themselves a favor by being aware potential danger approaching. But a pedestrian should not be required to anticipate and avoid every risk that they might be exposed to in a crosswalk. Motorists who traverse crosswalks own that responsibility.

  • So many problems with these ads. First, the correct phrase is “look left, look right, look left again.” Look both ways was the popular phrase in the 1950s. Second, the clear implication is that it is the responsibility of the walker and bicyclist to watch out for drivers breaking the law, not of drivers to watch out for walkers and bicyclists. Caltrans, DMV, CHP, and the others should be ashamed of these ads.

  • curiousKulak

    Maybe the ad should read something like: (tractor-trailer sitting atop an SUV: “look both ways – notice those trucks and watch for cyclists and pedestrians while you’re at it”

  • gneiss

    It’s entirely possible that the goal of this campaign is not so much to educate people walking and riding bikes about the dangers of failing to keep a look out, but rather to keep the focus for a large segment of the public on the idea that it’s human error of the victims rather than roadway design that causes death and serious injury. After all, posting these billboards along highways isn’t exactly reaching the target audience of the walking and biking public, but it will reach those who might serve on juries adjudicating lawsuits against Caltrans and who vote and influence politicians who have control over Caltrans budget and priorities.

  • Dave Campbell
  • Bruce

    I agree that motorists bear the vast majority of the responsibility when interacting with pedestrians. But all three ads, including the one unambiguously addressed at drivers (“you never know who you’ll run into”) include the phrase “look both ways.”

  • Hoecheck

    Meanwhile, if you live in the city you already know that city vehicles like busses have the right of way, not pedestrians.

    Oh, and if you are driving just know that you aren’t allowed in either the lane dedicated to but busses even when the bus decides it’s a good idea to bock your lane. Moving past that, all the uber priuses are allowed to park in whatever lane they want.

  • Not A Native

    The “tough love” graphics and copy of these ads offends me. But I think its OK and appropriate for pedestrians to be told they should make efforts, beyond obeying signs and signals, to increase their safety. That shouldn’t absolve drivers from responsibility to do the same. Accidents are mostly caused by human errors and bad decisions. Drivers rightly have much more obligation to not make errors or bad decisions. But in the interest of harm reduction, educating pedestrians about how to walk more safely is as worthy as informing them to guard their purses and wallets in crowds.

  • farazs

    >educating pedestrians about how to walk more
    >safely is as worthy as informing them to guard
    >their purses and wallets in crowds.
    Interesting analogy! Would you also say that a motorist is as much culpable in a collision, with malice aforethought, as a thief is when lifting some ones wallet? Or to turn is around, is the thief just making a human error or bad decision? If neither of those hold, then you analogy is incorrect.

    “in the interest of harm reduction” one can do much more which is much more effective. This is mis-directed public policy, especially considering how drivers are routinely and systemically absolved of responsibility by both law enforcement and judiciary.

  • Not A Native

    The analogy has nothing to do with the motivations or culpability of motorist or thief. The analogy is that in both circumstances it’s clearly appropriate to educate pedestrians about the irreducible dangers of walking and appropriate measures to reduce their risk.

  • farazs

    It has everything to do with culpability, because it exposes your warped mindset.

    > educate pedestrians about the irreducible dangers of walking
    > and appropriate measures to reduce their risk.
    That right there is the problem. The assumption that the dangers are irreducible – basically excusing bad driver behaviour as a natural phenomenon, is incorrect. Secondly, the dangers stems from driving, not from walking. Pedestrians are not the ones in control of 4-ton boxes of steel. The source of the risk is the driver, and that is the person most capable of reducing the risk, with traffic engineers and law enforcement having lesser roles to play. Short of that, all a pedestrian can actually do is avoid the risk by staying home for ever.

  • Not A Native

    Sigh, another comment hiding troll rants about his pet peeve. The only problem here is your concrete mind. All mixed up and permanently set.

  • Steven Scharf

    Every car comes with a button that you press that permits you to double-park, block sidewalks, and park in bicycle lanes. It has a triangle on it.

  • Hoecheck

    You clearly drive an uber.

  • Mark Myers

    Good grief, people are just looking for things to be offended by. Manufactured outrage is America’s leading industrial product these days. There are PLENTY of ads admonishing drivers to “talk or text later”, it is high time to start admonishing pedestrians and bike riders to start having some more situational awareness in a time when everyone is walking down the street with their eyes fixed on their screen, and//or with earbuds in or Beats on. Being legally “in the right” doesn’t make a lot of difference if you’re a smear on the pavement. Those of us who sail or do other boating have long understood the rules of the road, that even the stand-on vessel has an obligation to do what is necessary to avoid a collision, even if the give-way vessel fails to follow the rules. And we all recognize the unwritten law of superior tonnage – “if it’s bigger than you, get out of the way.” These accusations of “victim blaming” are dangerously counterproductive, muting the message that you can’t always rely on the other person to be safe and follow the rules, so if you want to stay alive, you have to take responsibility for your own safety.

  • Mark Myers

    Those of us who take to the sea by profession or hobby recognize the unwritten “law of superior tonnage” – if it’s bigger than you, get out of the way.” It’s just common sense, something that you people who kneejerk screech “victim blaming” are sorely lacking.

  • Mark Myers

    Maybe not legally required, but being legally in the right doesn’t mean much when you’re a smear on the pavement. In this day and age when so many pedestrians are staring at screens with no situational awareness, these ads are a good reminder that not every driver follows the rules every time, and if you want to be safe, you need to take responsibility for your own safety.

  • Bobbie Garnet Bees

    Stop using the word “accident”.

  • Bobbie Garnet Bees

    Gawd, you couldn’t be more wrong if you tried. Maritime law required the larger class of vessel to watch out for the smaller class of vessel.

  • Camera_Shy

    People staring at their screens are not going to see these ads.

    The analogy to sailing is a bit off, if only because the speed and maneuverability of water-borne vessels are limited at best. I also think that if the SFBay was as crowded with sailboats as SF is with cars, there’d be a sh!t ton more crashes and sailors would be offended at being told to pay attention, ha!

    I understand where you are trying to go with your wording, but in my mind the money to put these adverts out there could have been better spent if they targeted the main cause of injured peds and cyclists: vehicle drivers.

    I agree with others that telling peds to pay attention is one way of letting drivers know that they may not be at fault for doing something that is clearly wrong.

  • Camera_Shy

    I agree, these ads target drivers and ask them to look both ways. The solemn looks on the faces of the victims is meant to get drivers to feel guilty for not looking both ways.


How Quickly Will Caltrans Embrace Complete Streets Guidelines?

Photo: Thomas Hawk Though it may seem esoteric, one of the biggest impediments to designing streets for people is the over-reliance on design standards that have long privileged movement of vehicles over any other consideration on the streets. That’s why advocates cheered when U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood published a policy paper recently that, at […]