Ask Pat: Beg Flags

Brad asks—

Crossing a street at a crosswalk seems to be a fairly dangerous proposition these days, with people running the red light on right when turning off Columbia onto McBride, or even worse, with a child being struck by a car that failed to stop at a red light at Royal and 3rd. West Vancouver had a pilot project where they introduced “pedestrian flags” — flags that pedestrians would wave while crossing the street. Would these work at high-risk crosswalks in New West?

I need to start by putting the incident at Royal and 3rd into context. Reports are that a youth on a bicycle was crossing within a crosswalk with the light when a driver blew through the red light and struck the youth. Fortunately, the youth was only banged up a little, and there were no serious injuries, but it highlighted that something needed to be done about this dangerous crossing, right?

Once I heard a little more detail about the incident, it looked a little different. Apparently, the car did stop, but did so in a way that intruded a little into the crosswalk. At the same time, the youth was riding their bicycle through the crosswalk, leaping ahead of the crossing guard who was on site to help assure kids were kept safe. So there was a red light, a marked crosswalk, and a crossing guard. Both the driver and the youth pushed a little over the boundaries of how they were meant to transact the crossing. Of course the person on the bicycle was harmed more than the person in the car, but this does not look to me like and engineering failure, but a failure of two parties (one arguably more responsible than the other) to respect the rules of the road.

A bad situation, a scary moment for a child and for a crossing guard, a cause of worry for some parents, a teaching moment for all road users, but hardly a time for “something must be done” moral panic.

Which brings us to the beg flags. I pretty much agree with this article at City Lab. Beg Flags are a kludge solution to solve the wrong problem. I am slightly confounded by people who think a driver will ignore a painted crosswalk, will ignore cautionary signage, will ignore a red light, and will ignore the presence of children in the street yet will, for some reason, immediately yield at the sight of a little yellow flag.

I can’t help but think this is news story demonstrates a fundamental flaw in the beg flag idea. There also seems to be mounting evidence from Cities that have tried them that they do nothing to improve safety or adjust driver behavior.

Worse, actions like this put the onus on the pedestrian to adjust behaviors of the person who is breaking the law and threatening their safety. What happens if a pedestrian is hit and (aghast!) they didn’t decide to pick up the flag? Does that absolve the driver of fault? After all, the flags were right there, and the pedestrian should have used it. Or should we limit the crossings of streets to places where crossing flags are available? At what point do beg flags become the standard of safety that all pedestrians must adhere to?

We already see this evolution for cyclist. Any time a cyclist is hit by a car (and in Vancouver, it has been determined that the driver of the car is at fault 93% of the time!), the news story is not complete without the question of whether the cyclist was wearing a helmet being addressed. Like that is in any way relevant when a driver right-hooks them illegally.

The City did (in our own nod to Moral Panic) review the situation at 3rd and Royal, and found a few ways to adjust the engineering geometry of the intersection to increase safety. To be clear: they determined that the crossing was already well beyond any standard of safety – there was no issue here with meeting regulatory or design standards (especially with a crossing guard present), but we can always slightly increase buffer zones and improve signage and paint to create greater visibility for drivers. Incremental improvement is always something we should strive for when it comes to pedestrian safety.

But until we are ready to make serious changes to how the traffic system in our City, and our region works, being a pedestrian will always be more dangerous that it should be. We know how to make it safer – lower speed limits, reduced lane widths, the building of pedestrian-first infrastructure. None of these will happen until we first change our cultural bias towards getting traffic moving for safety that started with the invention of “Jaywalking” as a crime and continues today when we ask pedestrians to dress up like a Christmas tree and wave flags of surrender whenever they want to walk to their neighborhood school.

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