Between 2013 and 2014, there was a 200 percent increase in the number of collisions related to distracted driving, according to new data from the Seattle Department of Transportation. And drivers aren't the only ones distracted.
Seattle in winter: The city streets are a nasty stew of rain and darkness, too many cars and a steady flow of pedestrians all dressed as if headed to a funeral.
Last week, I was trying to turn right on Fourth Avenue, waiting for a couple to cross east and a woman to cross west.
Lucky me; they know each other. And they stop, in the middle of the crosswalk, to have a little rush-hour chat.
My hands went up in exasperation: “Really?”
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Later on, I’m waiting to turn left onto Dexter while a guy carrying an umbrella in one hand and his phone in the other ambles across the street as if he’s the only techie in town. He clears my path just as the light is about to change, and I proceed. And out of the corner of my eye, I see him swing the umbrella like a golf club. At my car.
But drivers are no better, drifting across lanes while they text and talk. They miss lights, delaying a line of cars behind them, because they were on their phones. They block intersections — and crosswalks — so no one can get anywhere.
(Don’t even get me started on cyclists.)
It’s no wonder, then, that between 2013 and 2014, there was a 200 percent increase in the number of collisions related to distracted driving, according to new data from the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).
Two. Hundred. Percent.
“Everybody’s distracted,” said Jim Curtin, the traffic-safety coordinator for SDOT. He’s seen bicyclists on Lake City Way with earbuds in, with their hands off the bars, talking on their phones.
“I think they’re crazy,” he told me. “Lake City Way! That’s 40,000 vehicles a day going 30 to 40 miles per hour!”
With that, I got what I came for: reassurance that the people in charge of keeping Seattle moving know, first hand, that it isn’t — and that something’s gotta give.
“We most certainly do understand what is going on out there,” Curtin said. “We’re just not seeing each other. We’re distracted. And it’s dark outside.”
Indeed, we’re in the thick of it. Curtin noted the “huge spike” in pedestrian collisions between October and February.
In 2013, there were 388 involving pedestrians, Curtin said. Of those, 294 — or 75 percent — were hit in the crosswalk.
“That says to me that there are a lot of folks who are not necessarily performing the duty they need to be doing when they’re in our streets,” Curtin said. “It’s a pretty clear-cut case of not paying attention.”
In many places downtown, he said, “You have more pedestrians on the street than you have cars on the road.
“We’re booming at levels I think are only comparable to the Gold Rush of 1890.”
And while every intersection is a legal crosswalk, drivers aren’t yielding — and pedestrians are nevertheless crossing in the middle of the street.
In April, the city of Seattle is launching a campaign focused on distraction that will focus on both drivers and pedestrians — and touch on bicyclists, as well, Curtin said.
He’d like to see stricter laws around distracted driving; people actually getting pulled over and fined.
But don’t hold your breath.
Last year, the city established a strict law against blocking intersections — complete with a $136 fine — but only enforced it twice a month, mainly in South Lake Union, where side streets pour onto Mercer Street and its access to Interstate 5.
“It’s a traffic-flow issue,” Curtin said, “but it’s also a safety issue.”
So what do we do?
“Pay attention,” Curtin said. “It’s clearly the biggest issue on our streets. Distracted biking. Distracted walking. Use your five senses.”
And make better choices, he said, like not entering an intersection when there’s no room for you on the other side. Make eye contact with drivers before you step into a crosswalk, and make your way quickly. Don’t bolt out into the street to catch a bus. Stay back from the curb.
Hello? Can you hear me?
“It’s safe to say that everyone is distracted, whether you’re walking or biking or driving. And everyone needs to focus on the road. Because it’s quite literally taking your life in your hands.”