The Examiner vs. Chronicle on Pedestrian Safety

"Run for Your Life" exclaims the June 4 Sunday Examiner with RUN in blood-red type. A photo shows a pedestrian, face creased with alarm, racing for the curb as a cab with wheels a blur bears down on him.

It brilliantly illustrates the problem and theme of the 63-inch story: Let the pedestrian beware!

The Chronicle story the next day also makes page one. Again the photo strikes the theme: A street vendor safely crosses an intersection with extended sidewalks to give him a better view of the traffic--and drivers a better view of him and his slow-moving flower cart. This story stresses solutions.

The two newspapers took very different approaches to the same important issue: Eighteen pedestrians have been killed in San Francisco since January and many more injured.

Both stories feature strong writing and photography, and many interviews. But readers can learn much more from the Chronicle’s account. Rather than describing the story solely from the pedestrian’s viewpoint, the Chronicle sees the problem whole. Pedestrians, drivers, police and the physical environment and technology of crossings all contribute to the crisis and each forms part of the solution. The Chronicle aims for the head; the Examiner for the gut.

Injury control experts will tell you that it takes three things to make San Francisco safe for foot traffic: education, engineering, and enforcement.

Enforcement is simple: Arrest or ticket those who break the laws already in place.

Engineering is more complicated, but effective. It involves changing the structures in the environment to slow traffic, increase time for walking and maximize visibility.

Education is more than simply imploring people to be careful. It is about transmitting the values that influence expectations and social norms about what constitutes acceptable behavior.

A comprehensive pedestrian safety program would involve all of these aspects. The Pedestrian Safety Task Force at the Department of Public Health is spearheading such an approach.

The Examiner: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

The Examiner devotes more than half the front page and a full page inside to tell the story of pedestrian safety. It recounts who has been hit recently, ranging from toddlers to the elderly, and the extent and circumstances of their injuries. Quotations from a city official emphasize the dangers to pedestrians in the city overall. The contextual information here, and the story’s size, confirm the seriousness of the problem.

But now that we know it's a serious, what should we do? The Examiner quotes advice from pedestrians: wait for the green or well beyond it, look both ways, point your finger under your shirt like you have a gun, make sure no one is running a red light, hold out an extended arm, check and recheck for cars, make eye contact with drivers, wait for the right of way, don't jaywalk, walk in a crowd, wait until the end of the green cycle before starting to cross the street, pay attention, and finally, pray.

What the Examiner doesn't do is look beyond this advice. Does it work? Is some of it bad advice? And, is that the best we can do?

The experts would say no. In fact, pedestrian behavior is only one part of the story. At minimum, drivers also have obligations here. What should they be doing, and what strategies do they employ, to avoid pedestrians?

Worse, the Examiner reports on no prevention tactics outside of what pedestrians themselves can do. Surely there are others with responsibility here. What about enforcement? What engineering solutions might work in San Francisco? What has worked elsewhere?

The Chronicle: focusing on solutions 

In less than half the space, the Chronicle presents more than twice as much information. Before we leave the front page, we know of three remedies - speed bumps, wider sidewalks, and countdown lights - each of which could help slow down traffic and reduce injuries.

The article elaborates these structural interventions as well as enforcement, multidisciplinary task forces, lighted sidewalks, traffic circles, and eliminating one-way streets. The policies aren't just listed. The reporter tells us where the experts agree, which are most promising, and which have already been abandoned. The Chronicle is long on substance and short on sensation, yet still presents engaging information, with plenty of first-person accounts from pedestrians.

For a frequent pedestrian in San Francisco, the Chronicle provides an idea of what to expect--or demand--from the city in the way of reasonable protection. The article prepares you to act as a citizen, rather than react as a victim.

"Walk defensively" is the take home message from the Examiner. Pretty scary and not much help. The front page placement reinforces the notion that this is important, but the article sheds no light on what can be done, besides staying alert.

Neither article mentions that the Pedestrian Safety Task Force, a group working on solutions, meets the 3rd Tuesday of each month at 10 a.m. at the Department of Public Health, 101 Grove Street, room 220. 

The Grades:

Chronicle A-

Examiner C-

--Lori Dorfman

Lori Dorfman directs the Berkeley Media Studies Group.