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Some thoughts on LOOK!

September 19, 2012

Today, DOT announced officially launched its LOOK! Safety Education Campaign, and will ultimately spend $60,000 to mark 200 intersections with the exclamatory admonition.  Why?

“Having the right of way does not guarantee your safety,” LaHood said, while standing beside an intersection that saw 75 pedestrian injuries between 2006 and 2010.

“We need motorists to pay attention as they’re taking the turn,” Sadik-Khan urged.

Think about that.  Instead of spending $60,000 to fix a single intersection where about nineteen pedestrians are injured per year, DOT is spending $300 at each of 200 intersections to tell people to watch out.  While I know there isn’t one giant budget from which all DOT projects are created, this still seems like a strange priority.  It’s like looking at a patient with brain cancer who needs a single chemo treatment for a chance at survival and announcing that you’re instead going to use your medical insurance to give 200 people with migraines a fancy card that says, “Get a good night’s sleep.”  Even worse, it’s like making that announcement with the cancer patient standing right behind you for the photo-op.

There’s a weird disconnect between the project’s goals and its execution.  The problem with drivers isn’t so much that they don’t pay attention, but that they speed and are downright hostile towards people in their paths.  Just today I checked before crossing Varick Street with the light in front of my office and saw no cars coming in any direction.  But as I made it well into the middle of the street a driver came barreling around the corner at full speed, passing in front of me by mere inches.  Had I been walking slightly faster no reminder to LOOK! back at the curb would have saved my life.  LOOK! may make the difference for a few iPhone-obsessed pedestrians, but I doubt if it will help too many seniors cross a three- or four-lane avenue in thirty seconds.

According to Streetsblog, the LOOK! campaign was inspired by the “ubiquitous crosswalk markings in London that instruct pedestrians to look left or right.”  But there’s one hugely obvious difference between London’s reasons for doing this and New York’s.  In London, “Look” is a signal to Americans, Continental Europeans, and other foreign visitors who may not be used to walking in a city where cars drive on the “wrong” side of the road.  Translated from the British, “Look” essentially means, “Please try to overwrite the ingrained brain patterns that you’ve developed over a lifetime of crossing the street in your home country since failing to do so in jolly old England may result in you accidentally getting crushed by a law-abiding black cab driver.”  In Noo Yawkese, “LOOK!” simply means, “Our drivers here are KA-RAY-ZEE, so good luck, pal.”

For educational campaigns to work at all they need to be ongoing.  DOT will also be targeting “drivers with ads on the backs of buses,” but those ads will only be up for six months, will likely only reach a tiny fraction of New York City motorists, and will be competing for attention with ads for 1-800-DIVORCE and Resident Evil: Part 36.  Long after the ads are taken off of buses, these thermoplastic letters will still be left on the ground at hundreds of intersections, leaving the longterm impression that street safety is solely in the hands of the most vulnerable users.

And speaking of vulnerable users, compare the messages DOT has recently relayed to these different categories of street users:

  • DOT to pedestrians: LOOK!
  • DOT to cyclists: Don’t be a jerk.
  • DOT to drivers: Hit at 40 mph, there’s a 70% chance they’ll die. Hit at 30 mph, there’s an 80% chance they’ll live. That’s why it’s 30.

As I’ve said before, there’s something wrong with your messaging when the abstract lesson in physics and statistics is given to the people whizzing by your ads at 40 mph, while the short, curt admonitions are reserved for the people experiencing the city at biking and walking speeds.

So, look.  Even in the most pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly cities it’s still a good idea to raise your eyes from up your cellphone before stepping off of the curb.  Given the unpredictability of New York City streets, I have no problem with anyone, even the government, telling people to be a little more careful out there and to take responsibility for their own safety.  I also recognize that DOT’s hands are tied.  If livable streets depend on finding the right balance of the three E’s of Engineering, Education, and Enforcement, it’s never going to be easy for DOT to accomplish its goals when the NYPD doesn’t seem to care that much about the last E.

Still, that’s no excuse for the DOT’s overall pattern of ignoring the bull, as Mikael Colville-Andersen would say.  Ultimately, I don’t think LOOK! will hurt; in limited cases it can only help.  If a little thermoplastic will remind someone to stop texting before they cross the street, fine.  But why can’t the department that gives us bold and visionary street designs also give us bold and visionary safety campaigns?

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One Comment
  1. Steve O. permalink
    September 19, 2012 10:53 pm

    Great take — you really nailed it.

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