The risky business of walking

I fear it’s only a matter of time before I’m in a traffic accident. As a pedestrian. Since reading recently about a rise in pedestrian fatalities locally and nationally, I’ve been noticing hazards more when I step outside in downtown Chicago.

At intersections, especially those with left-turn arrows for drivers, assuming a walk sign means it’s safe to proceed can get you mowed down. Drivers hasten to clear the intersection on yellow, whether it’s a yellow light or a yellow arrow. Many’s the time I’ve stood in the middle of Congress while cars turning left from State Street ignored the walk sign. And that intersection is not even on the list of the city’s most hazardous.

Sidewalks aren’t always safe either, what with bicyclists and skateboarders getting too close for comfort.

Statistics bear out the perception that it has grown riskier to walk in Chicago. According to the Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee website, pedestrian fatalities In the first six months of this year equalled the total in all of 2013 — 27. Fatalities increased to 35 in 2014 to 46 in 2015 and 44 in 2016.

Recognizing the problem, the city’s Vision Zero campaign aims to eliminate deaths and serious injuries from traffic crashes by 2026.

Pedestrians aren’t blameless. I confess to crossing on red when nothing’s coming and reading text messages while walking. A good many passers-by are on their phones. At Roosevelt and Wabash, a busy intersection near my home, pedestrians often get in the way of drivers trying to turn on green arrows.

It’s not only in Chicago that pedestrian fatalities have increased. Nationwide, they rose 11 percent in 2016, the largest increase in 40 years, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices. That followed a 9.5 percent increase in 2015 — adding up to a more than 20 percent rise in two years. Aggressive driving and distraction from cellphones, among other factors, have been blamed.

Traffic safety experts can debate the causes, but what can we do as pedestrians in Chicago to protect ourselves? I thought about my unsafe practices and how to do better.

* It’s chancy to assume that a driver will give you the right of way. Even when you have the walk sign, be cautious about stepping in front of a car that's coming up to a red light.

* Making eye contact with the driver of a stopped car, if possible, is helpful. Someone who’s going to turn right on red, for instance, would be looking to the left for traffic and could forgot to look to the right for a pedestrian stepping off the curb.

* To be alert, you need your ears as well as your eyes. Stay off the phone and don’t wear headphones.

* Obey traffic laws. If you cross on red when no vehicles are in sight, you may make it to the other side but give a bad example to a child waiting for the walk light. Oftentimes, I’ve noticed a child too late to reverse the slipup.

* It’s prudent to look both ways before crossing a one-way street. Consider Dearborn Street downtown, which is one way going north, but the protected bike lane allows bicycles in either direction. The huge “LOOK BIKES” letters painted at intersections are meant to warn pedestrians who are not expecting anything with wheels to be going south.

• Buildings on both sides of an alley can block the vision of drivers coming out of the alley, so pause to check for cars.

* If you’re cutting through a parking lot, watch for cars backing out of parking spaces.

• Just as you do when driving, before “changing lanes” on a walkway, look for what’s coming up behind you. Make sure nothing with wheels (bicycle, skateboard, scooter, Segway, pedicab) is passing before you move over. When I left the Adler Planetarium Monday to walk home from the eclipse viewing, three bicyclists moving fast passed me from behind and recklessly wove in between the many pedestrians.

* Another just-as-when-you’re-driving tip: It’s risky to walk after you’ve been drinking. The Center for Disease Control says that one-third of pedestrians killed in traffic crashes had a blood alcohol content of .08 percent, the legal limit for driving under the influence.

* When a sidewalk is closed for construction and a new path isn’t provided, cross to the sidewalk on the opposite side. A hotel is being built next to my condo building, closing the sidewalk on 11th Street. I’ve foolishly walked alongside the construction fence even though drivers turning east from Wabash onto 11th wouldn’t see me. That’s stupid, so why have I done it more than once? Being in a hurry, calculating that the odds of a car’s coming around the corner and hitting me are small, hoping that if I stick close to the fence I’m safe.

Not good reasons to play loose with my life. It wouldn’t hurt me — pun intended — to walk more safely in city traffic.


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  • Marianne,
    Enjoyed your "Walking article." I would like to include it in the next edition of the Dearborn Express. We are strictly a non-profit effort sponsored by the South Loop Referral Group. You will receive credit and a link will be provided to your blog site. (This is an electronic Publication for Printers Row and Dearborn Park). You can see an older issue at
    thanks Al Hippensteel

  • I'd be flattered by a reprint. May I ask to be put on your mailing list for Dearborn Express? My email is Thanks. Marianne

  • Al, for some reason didn't work.

    Say, you're Donna's husband, aren't you? I volunteered to do some gardening with her when I first moved to the South Loop, and I've since run into her here and there, so I'll bet I've seen you with her.

  • You can contact me at

    And yes, Donna is my wife. The Dearborn Express is distributed by PDF file to subscribers and property managers. You may know Bonnie McGrath, another Chicago Now blogger. She has been in every one of our issues, over 70 now.

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