Proposed pedestrian safety bill takes pedestrian safety backwards

A4449 – Driver and Pedestrian Mutual Responsibility Act – could better be known as the “Driver Immunity and Pedestrian Blaming Act” or the “Get out of the way or get hit” Act. This misguided attempt at increasing pedestrian safety shows little to no understanding of Complete Streets principles, but more importantly, is predicated on the premise that physics will permit a balance between the behavior of human beings and that of 2000-pound hunks of steel.

This bill makes the concept of right of way  less clear and takes away existing protections from pedestrians. The sponsor(s) of this bill are misinformed in that they believe the Stop and Stay Stopped bill (NJ 39:4-36) added provisions and duties that didn’t exist before, which is incorrect, and they, therefore, are attempting to roll back 39:4-36. This bill is worse than rolling back to pre 39:4-36; it actually takes away rights that existed prior to Stop and Stay Stopped.

To begin, 39:4-36 didn’t give any new protections to pedestrians; it simply provided clarity. Drivers had the same duties before 39:4-36; it simply changed the language to “stop” instead of “yield.” This bill reverts to “yield” as opposed to “stop.” Yield is ambiguous and does not provide the unequivocal and clear language regarding the motorist’s duty towards a pedestrian. Increasing ambiguity in New Jersey traffic law does nothing to address the high percentage of pedestrian fatalities the state has been grappling with since at least 2008.

Further, historically, all road users had an equal right to the road. When crosswalks were invented, legislators stated that they recognized the great sacrifice that pedestrians were making by giving up their equal right to the road in exchange for having priority in limited places, like the crosswalk- marked and unmarked. This bill, by failing to recognize unmarked crosswalks, waters down and limits even further those relatively few places where pedestrians have priority. Hardly a balance.

The language in A4449 is also messy; for one, it assumes there are intersections everywhere. Imagine being in rural New Jersey, or on a suburban arterial where there are no crosswalks and possibly no intersection for a quarter to a half mile at a minimum. A4449 would make it illegal to cross the road anywhere but at an intersection, which is impractical at best. Are pedestrians expected to walk the distance to the next crosswalk? In the dead of night, in the cold and snow? As it currently stands, pedestrians can cross at other places than the crosswalk, but must simply yield the right of way to motorists, where before the advent of crosswalks, pedestrians had equal right to any part of the road (this was obviously found to be impractical with the advent of the automobile).

Lastly, the removal of permissive inference in the event of a collision between a vehicle and a pedestrian within a marked crosswalk, or at an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection (“permissive inference” meaning that it is inferred that the driver did not exercise due care for the safety of the pedestrian) is literally open season on pedestrians.

These legislators would do better to explore implementing Complete Streets/traffic calming measures and other street infrastructure that further adds clarity to the expected behavior of both drivers and pedestrians, rather than create a situation where drivers bear virtually no responsibility for their actions. Attempting to equate a “balance” between the physical capabilities of a 2000-pound vehicle in motion with those of a human being is laughable at best, and at worst, blames the victim for what befalls them.

Cyndi Steiner, Executive Director

 

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