A national model for making a safer walking experience


Published: Sunday, May 26, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 24, 2013 at 11:35 p.m.

‘There's no such thing as bad publicity,” Oscar Wilde famously said. And Sgt. Joe Raulerson can certainly relate to that.

Raulerson heads the Gainesville Police Department's traffic unit. And he wrote the grant that funded GPD's enhanced pedestrian enforcement efforts.

Including its now infamous crosswalk “sting” operations.

These days, GPD's program is being held out as a national model for communities that want to make to walking a safer experience in Auto America.

But when other police departments call to ask about GPD's program, Raulerson says he always cautions them to be prepared to receive complaints.

Lots of complaints.

During a bike/pedestrian law enforcement workshop at the downtown public library the other evening, Raulerson gave a presentation on GPD's efforts to improve pedestrian safety.

He pointed out that in 2011, the last year for which figures are available, 497 pedestrians were killed in Florida ... an astounding 20 percent of all traffic deaths. This makes the Sunshine State America's leader in killing pedestrians.

Gainesville, with its large student population, experiences two to three pedestrian-related accidents a week. And when GPD began to study the problem it discovered that only about 30 percent of motorists were yielding to pedestrians in the crosswalks.

“A law that is not enforced is a law ignored,” Raulerson said.

Hence the sting operations that have been the grist for so much spirited discussion on talk radio and TV, in The Sun's opinion pages and elsewhere.

Motorists stuck with a $154 ticket for failing to yield have complained bitterly about “entrapment.” Some say it's nothing but a cheesy GPD money-making scheme.

No surprise there. We live in an automobile culture. For at least half a century we have been engineering our streets and roads with the primary purpose of enabling drivers to get from one place to another as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

In that context, having to stop in deference to someone who ventures onto the street without a protective cocoon of Detroit steel is an alien concept.

During his presentation Raulerson showed a short video of one of GPD's sting operations, near Gainesville High School. And I have to admit that even I flinched a little bit as I watched a “decoy” stand on the sidewalk and place a single foot onto the crosswalk.

At which point GPD officers began to flag down one motorist after another after another for ignoring said foot.

Listen, I'm a “walkable streets” guy. But watching the video, I doubted that even I would have noticed that single foot and reacted in time to safely stop and allow the pedestrian to cross.

On the other hand, getting a ticket for failing to heed a foot might ruin my day. But hitting, and possibly killing, a pedestrian because I wasn't paying attention would haunt me for the rest of my life.

Which is why all of the invective being hurled at GPD by stung motorists bothers Raulerson not at all. Because every time someone goes on the radio to complain about entrapment, a listener sitting in a car somewhere is likely to pay a little bit more attention when he sees a pedestrian standing at a crosswalk.

And GPD can show that the percentage of motorists who yield to pedestrians has been rising since enhanced enforcement began.

In his book “Walkable City,” Jeff Speck poses the question: “Will the pedestrian survive?

“Will potential walkers feel adequately protected against being run over, that they will make the choice to walk? This is clearly the central question of any discussion of walkable cities.”

Gainesville aspires to be a walkable city. Changing attitudes hardened by half a century of car culture will not be easy or painless ... or cheap.

Oscar Wilde had it right. There really is no such thing as bad publicity when it comes to keeping pedestrians alive.

Ron Cunningham is the former editorial page editor of The Sun. He is executive director of Bike Florida.

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