As everyone knows we are now in the month of April. This means warmer weather, cherry blossoms, pollen, severe allergies, and of course April Fool’s Day. Who doesn’t love a good (harmless) practical joke? Especially one that is a message of public education and awareness. Behold the “Philadelphia E-Lane Initiative.”
During the first week of April, the city of Philadelphia, PA rolled out what might be one of the most bold April Fool’s joke/social experiments. Along the 1400 block of John F. Kennedy Boulevard, the spray painted sidewalks depicted the well known stick figure pedestrian peering down at a hand-held device. To accompany these lanes, street signs were also placed on light posts to ensure motor vehicles, bicyclists and other non-hand-held device using pedestrians knew they were not to cross over into the lanes for the digitally distracted. These e-lanes, as they are called, are more than just a joke; they are a message bringing attention to a chronic problem that affects cities across the country—the danger of inattentive pedestrians.
Officials in Philadelphia even went so far as to produce a mock news interview with Mayor Michael Nutter and Deputy Mayor for Transportation and Utilites Rina Cutter. Among the scenes of law enforcement removing non-users from the lanes, street interviews, and the obviously staged “protest” of anti-texting protesters the parody was able to emphasize the seriousness of the issue as no laughing matter. In his mock interview regarding the initiative, the mayor referenced the following statistic, “Every four hours a pedestrian is hit by a car in Philadelphia.” Based on this number that’s about 42 people per week, 180 per month, and 2,190 per year. Just in Philadelphia alone!
This is not just a localized problem, it’s national. In 2009, on average a pedestrian was killed every 2 hours and injured every nine minutes in traffic accidents across the United States. Take a closer look and 76 percent of the fatalities occurred at non-intersections, which leads one to believe that sole blame cannot be placed on drivers. All too recently we’ve seen the effects of distracted walking including an incident involving a Michigan mom walking off a pier into the lake and another woman falling on her face during a life newscast. In Washington, DC, alone about 3 times a day someone gets hit by a vehicle. I can attest to this—as I’m sure we all can—that on a typical day I see several near misses some at the fault of the driver, but mostly at the fault of a distracted pedestrian. Overwhelming data show that DC area roads are not safe enough for transit riders and drivers, walkers, and cyclists. In order to create a safe, livable community, the situation must improve.
While I would not go so far as to hail Mayor Nutter as a “trailblazing breakthrough”—as coined by his office—and albeit it garnered a small press coverage, I would venture that it has caught the attention of various other public education campaigns with similar goals regarding public safety around the country. For instance, since 2002, the Street Smart initiative has launched several radio, newspaper and print ads around the DC metropolitan area to bring awareness to pedestrian and bicyclist safety. Last year, they kicked off their spring campaign which included ads featuring giant feet smashing cars. Other actions taken to thwart walking and texting include a recently instituted fine by the Utah Transportation Authorities which targets pedestrians engaged in “distracted walking” near its tracks.
As social marketers we work with a wide range of issues ranging from pediatric palliative care to flood insurance. For something that should be common sense, where did we lose our animal instinct of being aware of our surroundings and only you protects you? Didn’t we learn at a very young age to always Stop, Look Left, Look Right, THEN Go, but with caution? I know I distinctly remember Mr. Rodgers and my good friends from Sesame Street providing this information whether directly or indirectly through song. Perhaps if there were an App that provided views from all angles for chronic texters there might be a higher chance of success. Oh wait there is! The WalkSafe app for Android phones helps makes sure distracted walkers don‘t get slammed by an oncoming vehicle by letting them know what’s coming. I thought that’s what our eyes and ears were for, my mistake.
I don’t claim to know the answer, or even say with certainty that there is an effective solution. Perhaps you have thoughts or care to disagree, but something has to change. And since I’d rather not be the new hood ornament of a metro bus or town car I think our behaviors and actions as pedestrians is that something. Some say a picture is worth a thousand words, so why shouldn’t that same picture (even a spray painted stick figure) dictate those words and resulting actions? So, stop and smell the spring flowers and admire the world around you; it might just save your life.