Four easy steps to be a safer pedestrian

Downtown Birmingham has a pedestrian culture, and therefore, following safety tips such as using the sidewalks and limiting distractions is of utmost importance.
Written by: Haley Herfurth and Tehreem Khan
Media contact: Alicia Rohan

Stream Pedestrian safetyDowntown Birmingham has a pedestrian culture, and therefore, following safety tips such as using the sidewalks and limiting distractions is of utmost importance. In May 2022, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released a report showing pedestrian fatalities have risen 59 percent since 2009, with more than 6,500 people struck and killed by vehicles in 2020 alone.

Alabama is no exception to that rule: In a 2022 Smart Growth America report, Alabama ranked 11th as the most dangerous state for pedestrians. 

Remember these four tips from a University of Alabama at Birmingham expert to be a safe pedestrian.

Do not jaywalk — crosswalk instead.

In 2020, more than 6,500 jaywalking pedestrians were killed by vehicles, and a projected 55,000 jaywalkers were injured, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

David Schwebel, Ph.D., associate vice president for Research Facilities and Infrastructure and director of the UAB Youth Safety Lab in the College of Arts and Sciences, studies pedestrian behavior and explains that walking is just like driving — laws need to be followed for safety reasons. 

“Drivers wouldn’t run a red light or dart their vehicles into an intersection when traffic is coming the other way, so why do some pedestrians feel that is OK?” Schwebel asked. “When you jaywalk, you are openly and blatantly breaking the law, which you don’t usually do when driving near intersections; but many pedestrians feel it’s justified.” 

Plus, in Birmingham, it is against city ordinance to cross a street anywhere but a crosswalk; jaywalkers can receive a fine and must pay court costs to contest it.

Keep your head up and your phone down.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2019 and 2020, there were an estimated 4,600 injuries associated with walking while distracted on the phone.

Schwebel says his research has shown that using the phone while walking significantly increases your risk of injury. 

“If you’re on the phone, text-messaging, browsing the internet or listening to music, it greatly increases your risk of being hit by a car,” Schwebel said. “Walking involves a fair amount of complex thinking. Our brain has to work hard to make sure we walk safely, especially near traffic. Our brain also has to work hard to text-message. It has to think about what we’re reading, how to respond and how to type. Brains can handle only so much. If we give the brain too much to do, mistakes can happen.”

Stick to the sidewalk; be visible.

Pedestrians should always assume that drivers are not paying attention, and ensuring drivers see you is one of the most important factors in staying safe. One way to be safe is by using sidewalks. If for some reason a sidewalk is not available, Schwebel recommends walking on the far side of the road facing traffic to help increase your visibility to drivers. 

“At dawn and dusk, visibility drops and makes it difficult to detect pedestrians,” Schwebel said. “To be safe, pedestrians should wear reflective, light-colored clothing to alert drivers, travel free of distractions such as looking at the phone, and ensure eye contact with approaching or stopped drivers to ensure they are aware of the pedestrian’s presence.”

Think about the driver’s perspective.

One way to improve your safety as a pedestrian is to take the perspective of drivers you encounter. Sometimes drivers may be stressed or distracted given life conditions such as personal conflicts, financial stress, illnesses and so on.

“Remember that, around UAB, we have all sorts of drivers on the roads,” Schwebel said. “Many drivers are students or employees, but we also have people passing through the campus area and a large number of visitors to our hospitals and medical center. Drivers coming to the hospital complex may be visiting from out of town and be less familiar with driving in city environments where there are many pedestrians. They may be visiting loved ones who are ill in the hospital. Everyone should take steps to drive safely, but I encourage pedestrians to be sympathetic to the unknown driver’s situation in order to protect their own safety and also those around them.”