D on't cross the street in the middle in the middle
In the middle in the middle in the middle of the block.
That little ditty -- it goes on to warn kids to "Use your eyes to look up, Use your ears to hear" -- is seared into the memories of millions who grew up watching TV in the New York City area in the 1960s, and as unlikely as it may seem, the infectious jingle may have saved lots of kids from being plowed over by a bus.
Which, in this strange moment in Washington, is apparently a serious threat.
Despite the jokes about how being hit by a bus is the quickest, easiest way to go, the blend of driver arrogance and pedestrian recklessness we've seen on local streets is downright scary. I watch my own kids crossing the street, and I realize that they, like me and probably most of you, too, are alive through some weird combination of luck and a sixth sense about when cars might be hurtling down the street. The kids' necks seem to be wired to turn in one direction at most; looking both ways is far too complex a maneuver.
It's not just kids, of course. I stood at Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, where two women were killed by a Metrobus this month, and watched pedestrians. Any relationship between the walk light and when people decided to cross the avenue was purely coincidental.
And the new "Turning Traffic Must Yield to Pedestrians" signs that the District put up for the benefit of Seventh Street motorists could just as well be pictures of a bunny for all the impact they're having.
Part of the problem is that Pennsylvania Avenue is so wide there -- eight lanes plus a little median strip -- that people can be in the crosswalk and yet still be out of a driver's immediate field of vision.
But the larger issue is that people drive without thinking about who's walking, and people walk as if they have supernatural powers and cannot be harmed by oncoming blocks of steel.
I know a man who has spent three decades of his life agitating and educating on behalf of better street design to protect pedestrians. For as long as I've known John Z Wetmore, I have to admit, I've considered his obsession a bit peculiar. Wetmore has been focused on "Perils for Pedestrians" -- which is also the name of his TV program, shown on many local cable systems -- since his family moved to Bethesda when he was in sixth grade and John was appalled to discover that there were no sidewalks in the neighborhood.
John scours the country for creative solutions to the design flaws and faulty policies that lead to too many people getting smushed by cars. He knows what works: Squared-off urban street corners force motorists to slow down, and rounded, suburban curbs enable drivers to take a turn faster.
But as much as design can change the way we perceive our limits, D.C. neighborhood activist Terry Lynch is right to say that engineering is only a piece of the answer -- enforcement and education are also key. Lynch has been pushing D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier to reinvest in the department's traffic unit, which has shrunk over the years.
"We're reaping what we've sowed," says Lynch.
Lanier says it's more effective to have all officers watching out for traffic violations than to rely on a specialized unit. She notes in a letter to Lynch that despite the recent events, traffic fatalities are generally down -- with 43 last year, the fewest the city has had since 1995. Indeed, there have been fewer than 50 fatalities in each of the past three years, down from an average of 60 a year between 1995 and 2003.
D.C. police traffic safety officer Arlinda Page, who runs the department's safety training program for Metrobus drivers and police officers, says she is the only officer wholly dedicated to enforcing laws governing pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers. "We utilize as many bodies as we can in the department, but police officers have many duties," she says. "We're waiting to see if we can get more traffic officers."
Page and Lynch agree the focus should be on educating the youngest kids. But when Lynch met with public school leaders to press for more attention to pedestrian issues, he came away with the impression that D.C. schools barely touch the subject. Schools spokesman Audrey Williams says that's not the case, that the curriculum includes lessons on street crossing, bicycle safety and school bus behavior.
Page says, however, that she has no contact with the central D.C. schools administration and brings her lessons for little ones -- including a walk outside to show kids how to cross the street -- only to schools whose principals seek her out.
Contrast that with Fairfax County, where, according to health coordinator Liz Payne, all public schools teach kids in kindergarten, first, second and fourth grades about being a safe pedestrian.
In the end, people do whatever they think they can get away with, and kids, believing themselves to be invulnerable, are perhaps most likely to dart into oncoming traffic. But the silly little song that was drummed into me as a kid has stayed with me and with many others. And in some cities, the "Cross at the green, not in between" ad campaigns have actually helped reduce pedestrian fatalities.
Around here, we need bus drivers who honor red lights, cops who take pedestrian safety seriously and maybe a catchy new song to boot.