Atlantic Cities
Democracy in America

At Crosswalks, Should Drivers Have to Be Mind Readers?

At Crosswalks, Should Drivers Have to Be Mind Readers?
Flickr/a2gemma

Ann Arbor, Mich. is the smartest city in the country – at least according to a new study by The Business Journals. But all it takes is an ordinance governing cars and pedestrians to get all those brainy people in a tizzy.

A year after it took effect, the city resounds with debate over a law that requires motorists to stop if they think pedestrians are approaching the street, even if the walker hasn’t entered the road. Otherwise, drivers risk a $100 ticket and two points on their driver’s license.

Those tickets, as well as rear-end crashes that took place when ticket-wary motorists screeched to a halt, have the college town of 108,000 people in an erudite uproar.

Hundreds have posted comments at AnnArbor.com, an online news outlet, and the city council is trying to come up with a compromise to cool down the debate.

"The vociferous feedback from the community in recent weeks makes it clear the ordinance is flawed and needs to be fixed," Tony Dearing, the chief content officer for AnnArbor.com, wrote recently. "The sooner City Council makes changes, the safer our streets will be for both those who drive them and those who try to cross them on foot."

The ordinance, enacted in July 2010, is modeled after a decades-old law in scenic Boulder, Colorado, a city popular with walkers and bicyclists that wanted to cut down on clashes between cars and people.

Supporters of Ann Arbor’s law, including the city’s mayor, contend that the ordinance in Boulder, home to a branch of the University of Colorado, was a good model for the home of the University of Michigan.

But Ann Arbor’s situation has some unique characteristics.

For one, Michigan law requires only that cars stop for people who have already entered a crosswalk, something generations of students have learned in driver’s education.

For another, Ann Arbor is a city whose streets are frequently populated with out of town visitors, whether students at the University of Michigan, their parents or the tens of thousands of football fans who descend for games at The Big House.

Everybody in town, it seems, has a story of an aimless pedestrian who crossed against a light, forcing them to screech to a halt in order to avoid hitting them. And, from pedestrians’ point of view, crossing a street on a busy day can seem like “a game of Frogger,” says Barnett Jones, the police chief.

Nothing much changed in the first year after the Ann Arbor ordinance was in effect. City officials conducted an education campaign, and installed some new crosswalk lights.

But in September, the city decided to step up enforcement. In the first two days, police gave out eight tickets, and there have since been at least eight rear-end crashes at crosswalks around the city, including those on Plymouth Road, a major artery from US-23 to downtown.

Now, the city council is considering what it can do to revise the ordinance.

One idea, floated by Chief Jones, is to essentially outline an area on the sidewalk where pedestrians can stand to alert motorists that they are going to cross. Another is to define a crossing pedestrian as someone who is already standing at a curb or on a curb cut, leaving out the concept of “approaching.”

The ordinance might seem like a trivial matter in a place where 72 percent of adults have bachelor’s degrees. But the debate may exemplify John Fowle’s view that duty largely consists of pretending the trivial is critical.

“I'd say none of this is surprising,” said Dave Askins, who covers the city council for the Ann Arbor Chronicle. “The basic idea that ‘I'm smarter than you’ is one that I think defines the character of Ann Arbor better than anything you might read in a brochure."

 

Image credit: Flickr user a2gemma

Micheline Maynard is journalist living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She most recently led Changing Gears, a public radio project exploring the reinvention of the industrial Midwest, and was previously Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times. All posts »

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