Seattle pedestrians are known for dutifully waiting for the light before they cross the street. A pilot program starting next year wants to ensure that drivers return the favor and keep the crosswalk clear or face a fine.
It could be a positive step for a city that wants to move away from a car-centric culture.
A bill approved by the Legislature in 2020 allows Seattle to install traffic cameras at up to 20 locations, mostly around downtown, to ensure that drivers don’t “block the box,” that is, obstruct intersections or crosswalks.
Eight locations will be operational in January, with four groups of cameras monitoring transit lane obstructions, three looking for those blocking the box and one, at Fifth Avenue at Olive Way, monitoring both.
All locations will have clear signs and pavement markings, with white lines delineating the “box” and red paint indicating lanes restricted to buses only, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation. Drivers will be mailed a warning for a first infraction and a $75 citation for repeat violations.
Though some of us behave differently, driving a motor vehicle doesn’t grant you any special status. You don’t get to break the rules because you need to get where you’re going. A driver’s commute is just as important as a pedestrian’s or a public transit rider’s.
When a vehicle blocks a crosswalk — through carelessness or making a right turn at a red light — pedestrians are forced to go around, sometimes into traffic, to cross the street. For someone in a wheelchair or people who are blind, the danger is magnified. More than 50% of wheelchair pedestrian deaths happen at intersections, according to a Georgetown University study.
When a car rushing to beat the light gets caught at an intersection or blocks a transit lane, it can also delay buses, impede first responders and worsen gridlock.
In a confounding statement, a trio of Democratic state lawmakers from a suburb and rural Western Washington say they oppose the program, seemingly casting their constituents as hapless rubes who will neglect established rules of the road.
Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, worries people who live outside the city “are unlikely to even know such a law exists,” while Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, admits that when he’s driving he’s looking at the road and traffic not at signs and that he’s probably no different than his constituents in that regard. Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, also objected because visitors could be unfamiliar with traffic patterns.
Never mind that the Washington State Department of Licensing driver guide — the book every driver in the state must study — is clear about stopping before a crosswalk, yielding to pedestrians and paying attention to traffic signs.
These lawmakers also ignore that their constituents may eventually step out of their cars and will want to safely cross the street.
There is no valid reason to oppose the pilot program, which helps free up police and comes with a series of safeguards that address privacy concerns and an appeals process for truck operators who accidentally block the box. All citations issued must also be reviewed by an officer.
Testifying before the Senate Transportation Committee in 2020, Clark Matthews, a member of advocacy group Rooted in Rights, put it best: “The only argument I’ve heard against traffic camera enforcement is that it might work,” he said.
As the block the box program begins, Seattle drivers can make sure that it does.