Seldom in modern society do you engage in an activity where anyone makes the suggestion: You know, this might go more smoothly if you wave a flag over your head.
Celebrating patriotic holidays, perhaps.
But if you attempt to cross the street at one of 11 busy locations in Evanston, you will find a white cylindrical container holding wooden dowels bearing red flags — unless delinquents have swiped them — and a stark sign warning: LOOK LEFT & RIGHT WHEN CROSSING — FOR ADDED VISIBILITY CARRY RED FLAG ACROSS WITH YOU.” The concept is, you pluck a flag out of one container, cross in safety, then deposit it in the cylinder attached to the sign across the street.
A little unsettling, isn’t it? If the crossing is dangerous enough to demand flags, why not install a stop sign? Then again, perhaps being unsettled as you walk around town is a good thing.
Pedestrian traffic fatalities are soaring in this country, up 25 percent between 2010 and 2015, according to a report issued Thursday by the Governors Highway Safety Association. Which means pedestrian fatalities are rising four times faster than auto deaths.
Data from the first half of 2016 estimates deaths up another 11 percent from the year before. Though not in Illinois. Our numbers declined in 2016 (albeit after shooting up 24 percent in 2015) and are way below the national. Taken together, the 50 states and the District of Columbia average 1.75 deaths per 100,000 residents, with the worst being Delaware (3.38) and the best being Idaho (0.48). Illinois comes in at a respectable 1.17, just outside of the top third in safety.
The GHSA offers a range of speculation as to why some 6,000 people were killed by cars in 2016, including low gas prices leading to more driving and mild weather. It does also recognizes the elephant in the room: “A more recent contributing factor may be the rapidly growing use of smartphones to access wireless data while walking and driving, which can be a significant source of distraction for both pedestrians and motorists.”
Ya think? Between drivers reflexively checking their emails and pedestrians using their phones to find the closest Starbucks, it’s a wonder the numbers are not racing skyward even faster.
Though if you read deeper into the report, important non-phone factors come to the forefront. Three-quarters of the deaths occur at night. Half of the drivers causing pedestrian deaths are drunk. But, perhaps surprisingly, so are a third of the pedestrians. And 72 percent of fatal accidents occur at mid-block, or along a highway, as opposed to at intersections. In other words, drunk people stumbling out of bars at night and into traffic.
Maybe those cylinders of red flags ought to be located at the doors of taverns, alongside giveaway weeklies.
I was not familiar with the Governors Highway Safety Association before its report showed up, and the document is a wonder of clean graphics and ambitious range. For instance, lest the GHSA, a national organization of state highway safety offices, be accused of slandering perambulation as a mere vehicle of death, they pause to sing its praises, noting “walking is a great way to get the physical activity needed to obtain health benefits,” as well as a means of “social engagement” not to mention economical. Operating a car costs $8,558 a year, they note, “while walking is free.”
Free and fun. Especially with a red flag. I called Evanston to find out what I could about the flags, particularly why they have them at intersections without stop signs.
“You can barely go a block without a stop sign,” said Martha Logan, Evanston’s community engagement manager, who uses the flags. “I love ’em, I do,” she said. “Because they attract attention of drivers who might be texting or zoning out, that there’s a human being coming into the crosswalk.”
The Illinois Department of Transportation, incidentally, is positive about the flag system.
“It can be very effective,” said Paul Lorton, IDOT’s bureau chief of safety programs and engineering. “Though the flags tend to walk away. It’s kind of an honor system.”
Having crossed Sheridan Road at Clark Street several times and been disappointed at finding a bare bucket — these young rascals! — I was rewarded on my last visit with a cluster of flags. Seizing one, I waved it in a wide arc over my head, feeling very much like the traveler with the strange banner in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Excelsior.”
But I did look both ways first. I always look both ways. Even on deserted roads. Didn’t your mother teach you that?