Resist Victim-Blaming: Focus on the Real, Underlying Problems – and Solutions

Photo by Rafael Leão on Unsplash Photo by Rafael Leão on Unsplash

Pedestrians and cyclists run a high risk of being killed by cars. These groups are also the least likely to harm other road users. 

EU Data:

In Australia, you can often hear people putting the responsibility of a fatal crash on the pedestrian: pedestrians that get killed by drivers are responsible for their own deaths: basically they did not watch out. 

However, it is less known that Australia aims to achieve Vision Zero by 2050 and it adopted its Safe System approach. Vision Zero is a strategy to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all. 

Oslo, Norway, has reached a remarkable milestone in its pursuit of Vision Zero: The city witnessed zero cyclist and pedestrian fatalities in 2019.

It would be foolish to assume that pedestrians or drivers in Oslo never make a mistake. The difference is that Oslo has worked hard to create a forgiving road environment where mistakes are not deadly. 

The road system in Australia is dangerous by design: the lack of priority crossings for pedestrians paired with higher speed limits in urban areas than seen in most other OECD countries means that if a pedestrian or a driver makes a mistake, there is a high chance that the pedestrian will die. 

The NSW Center for Road Safety states: In a crash between a car and a pedestrian, there is a 10 per cent risk that a pedestrian will be killed at 30 km/h, 40 per cent risk at 40 km/h, and a 90 per cent risk at 50 km/h. However finding a 30km/h zones in Australia is like trying to find a needle in the haystack.

A study by researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London reveals that primary school children cannot accurately judge the speed of vehicles travelling faster than 20 mph (30km/h). Not a single child was killed on the roads of two Scandinavian capital cities, Oslo and Helsinki, in 2019. Road crashes are a leading cause of death for children aged 1-14 in Australia. We shouldn’t accept that people die on our roads; we should aim for zero road deaths.

Elderly people in Australia often can’t safely cross a road as there are no crossings within a reasonable walking distance and traffic is too fast for them trying to dart across the road quickly. It is unfair to blame them if they get killed when trying to cross a road.

Recent articles and campaigns about pedestrians being distracted by mobile phones are not supported by evidence. Information on who was at fault in these more recent deaths is not publicly available, and only survivors tell their side of the story. However a recent study by the New York City Department of Transportation, looking at both local and nationwide data, concluded that mobile phone use was not a significant cause of pedestrian trauma, causing less than 1% of crashes. 

It is wrong to imply that it is pedestrians’ responsibility to avoid being run over by inattentive drivers. While in other countries drivers give pedestrians priority even in situations when they don’t have to, in Australia many drivers don’t even know that by law they have to give pedestrians priority when turning. Responsibility for road use rises with capacity to cause harm.

Combine the unsafe street design with the victim-blaming messaging and the implied message becomes clear: Pedestrians aren’t welcome, and it’s their fault if they die. It tells drivers not to watch out for pedestrians, and it discourages walking. Heeding these messages will make streets less safe and more congested.