Being street smart in Washington means anticipating other travelers’ mistakes

Robert Thomson
Columnist April 26

Each spring, as people start to get out more, the Washington region’s law enforcement officers launch their Street Smart campaign. They try to educate all types of travelers to be more aware of each other, and they write tickets.

Many of my readers don’t need a seasonal campaign to raise their consciousness about the dangers we present to each other. In their letters, they urge drivers, walkers and cyclists to behave better. But as you look at them collectively, you will see that no type of traveler is without sin.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I know pedestrians have the right of way, however, what happened to common sense?

My parents taught me that no matter what, look both ways before you cross the street, even if you are crossing with the light. Make eye contact with the oncoming driver. It is easier to stop a forward moving human than a 3,000 pound vehicle.

Case 1. Five in the evening, poor light, slushy, icy, slick roads, snow coming down, poor visibility. I was driving down the 16th Street hill with my right turn indicator on. As I began to make my right turn, the pedestrian stepped out in front of my car.

I put on the brakes. My car slid sideways down the hill. I didn’t hit anything, but the pedestrian looked at me as if I were nuts.

Case 2. 14th and U streets NW, I have the left-turn light, which means that pedestrians have the Don’t Walk light. I have my signal on, I start to make the turn with a car right behind me. A group of teenagers steps into the intersection, and they scream at me, daring me to hit them. I stop, the car behind me honks and nearly hits me.

Every day, pedestrians cross against the light, causing traffic tie-ups and near-crashes as we drivers struggle to avoid killing someone.

— Nancy Pentz, the District

You’ve got some bad behavior by pedestrians here, whether unintentional or intentional. Don’t let them rattle you and don’t get angry. And if you’re that second vehicle going into a turn, anticipate that the driver ahead may need to stop for walkers.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Almost every day, the following occurs: I am slowly backing out of a parking space, looking behind me, when a pedestrian or a driver rushes by me.

They can see that I am pulling out and it should be obvious that my foot is on the accelerator.

Yet they still keep going, right behind me. Will you please provide some advice about this?

— Rhona Bosin, Silver Spring

Whether backing from a parking space in a lot or on your street, yield to oncoming pedestrians and motorists. Drivers and pedestrians in the through lane need to be aware that the backing driver’s visibility may be limited. Don’t stand on principle.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Transportation is important because it affects everyone in every part of the city. It’s a basic quality-of-life issue.

I have one concern with the walking section of your column [Dr. Gridlock, March 30]. You mention [the need for] better enforcement of rules on clearing snow from sidewalks. While I agree with that, snow is still only an occasional event. But reckless bicyclists riding on the sidewalks endanger pedestrians every day.

How about better enforcement of the law prohibiting any sidewalk bicycling in the Central Business District and of the rules requiring yielding to pedestrians and not speeding on sidewalks everywhere?

No matter how careful pedestrians may be in looking all ways when moving even slightly to the left, more are being injured.

— Jeanne Mallett, the District

I hear frequently from pedestrians who have brushes with cyclists on downtown sidewalks. Cyclists should be aware that they are barred from the sidewalks within the boundaries of the Central Business District.

But the District needs a more aggressive education campaign to let cyclists know that. And it needs a few signs.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

As I understand it, on trails everyone stays to the right. This includes walkers, bicyclists, baby carriages and rollerbladers. However, on roads the only ones who go with traffic are bicyclists, with all others facing traffic.

When I’m on trails, I stay to the right and ride at a moderate speed. I warn others of my approach by loudly calling out “Bicycle coming — stay right” as I overtake them. I cannot count the number of times people have moved left into my path, causing me to veer sharply back to the right to avoid hitting them, their children or their animals.

Then there are others who have earbuds cranked up and can’t hear anything but their music. Again it is up to me to take evasive action to avoid hitting them.

— Mike Marceau, Silver Spring

However the passing cyclist phrases the warning, it’s common for walkers to do exactly the opposite of what’s safe. It’s so common that the cyclist needs to anticipate it and be ready to react defensively on every single encounter.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com .

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