On Thursday morning, I nearly bought the farm. Met my maker. Cashed in my chips.
And it happened in a cruelly fitting way for a guy who espouses pedestrian rights and has repeatedly slammed PennDOT for doing nothing to improve its insanely dangerous streets in Harrisburg. I nearly croaked crossing Forster Street.
I live on one side of Forster—the six-lane state highway masquerading as a neighborhood road—and work on the other. So, every day, I Frogger across the street, hoping it won’t be my last day on this blue earth. On Thursday, it nearly was.
I was in the crosswalk, crossing with the green light. A motorist, coming the opposite way on Green Street, drove legally through the light but then made a quick left onto Forster, turning directly into me as I crossed the street.
As the driver turned, I expected she would yield, or at least go around me, but she actually sped up into the turn. I dove forward onto the pavement and missed getting hit by the front of her car by a mere fraction. She slammed on her brakes.
As I lay there in the middle of the road, she rolled down her window and asked me if I was OK.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I didn’t see you.”
Evidently, she was looking the other way, towards the traffic flying off the bridge and screaming up Forster Street. She didn’t bother to see if any pedestrians were crossing in front of her before making the left-hand turn.
Well, at least she apologized.
“Yeah, I know you didn’t see me,” I said back.
I told her I was all right. I just had a few scrapes on the hand I used to break my fall. My right wrist was slightly sprained, and my shoulder ached a bit.
I then decided to use this scary experience to editorialize on the subject, to try to make a good from something bad.
First, in Pennsylvania, by law, pedestrians always have the right of way.
Sure, I know that sometimes pedestrians act recklessly—I’ve seen it. But, in the battle between a 4,000-pound hunk of speeding steel and a 150-pound pile of flesh, metal will beat flesh every time. In a city, drivers must always assume that pedestrians are behind every parked car, around every corner and crossing every street, because often they are.
Secondly, well, PennDOT, it’s been a long time since I criticized your ludicrously dangerous roads in Harrisburg. I even held my pen last month when, sitting in a City Council meeting, I learned that you had rejected the city’s plan to improve safety on State Street in Allison Hill (aka, the most dangerous stretch of road in the country).
Smoke was coming out of my ears as city officials told council members that PennDOT was, once again, putting commuter speed over pedestrian safety. I restrained myself because, hell, my six or seven previous screams into the great abyss of the Keystone Building have gone nowhere.
But, as they say in the movies—now, it’s personal.
As I’ve said many times before, it’s way past time for PennDOT to use the many tools at its disposal to slow down traffic, improve safety at its intersections, skinny up its roads, enforce its traffic laws and understand that Harrisburg is a crowded city, not some weirdly engineered lane off of I-83, inconveniently occupied by human beings.
Waiting at Front or Forster streets, I’ve gotten into the habit of halting a few extra seconds before crossing because, inevitably, a car will race through an intersection or speed through a red light. Often, I’ll mumble under my breath, “Well, I’m glad someone (me) was paying attention.”
Yes, drivers need to better heed that bag of bones crossing the street. But PennDOT has an ethical and fiduciary duty to ensure that its roads are as safe as possible. Its poor road design, non-existent enforcement, excessive speed limits and lack of traffic-calming measures actually encourage reckless driving in this city.
In Harrisburg–on Front, Forster and State streets–the state is profoundly failing in its fundamental responsibility to keep its people safe. They know about these safety problems, yet sit on their hands. Sometimes I wonder: Do they even care? Do they understand that human safety is more important than traffic speed?
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.