Behavior

The death-defying herd instinct

Sidney Katz February 11 1980
Behavior

The death-defying herd instinct

Sidney Katz February 11 1980

The death-defying herd instinct

Behavior

When Henry Bliss stepped from the sidewalk at New York’s 8th Avenue and 74th Street one warm and clear September evening in 1889, he started a quiet little revolution in safety circles. An electric taxicab struck the 55-year-old real estate salesman, crushing his skull and chest, and granting him a kind of immortality as the first pedestrian victim of the car in North America. His death prompted New Yorkers to mount the first campaign to protect walkers against the “horseless carriage,” a campaign that has pitted mettle against metal with indifferent success ever since.

Surprisingly, it is the “carriage” that is least often to blame for what The Voice of Pedestrians, the official publication of the International Federation of Pedestrians in The Hague, calls a modern epidemic of pedestrian casualties. In fact, safety officials estimate that 80 per cent of car/pedestrian accidents are caused by pedestrians themselves. “We know how to protect them,” says Sam Cass, Metropolitan Toronto commissioner of roads and traffic, “but they won’t do what’s good for them.” Ignoring what’s good for them led to 57 deaths and 3,020 injuries suffered by Toronto pedestrians last year, a 12-per-

cent increase over 1978. “Pedestrians are a peculiar, unpredictable breed of people. I’ve been studying them for 30 years and I’m still baffled by their mentality.”

That mentality includes a pathological impatience, observed recently at

the Road Research Laboratory in London, England, by researchers who monitored crossings at a treacherous intersection. When overpass and underpass routes were extended, forcing pedestrians to spend 20 extra seconds’ travelling time, almost all chose the more hazardous surface crossing. In unregulated traffic, most pedestrians wait until there is a gap of four or five seconds between cars before making a move, says Cass. “But 40 seconds is the absolute limit of a pedestrian’s patience. Once he has waited that long, he’ll dash out into traffic, even though there’s only a twoor three-second gap between cars. And that’s when accidents happen.”

The herd instinct is another behavioral idiosyncracy that lands many pedestrians in the hospital or morgue. “Collectively, they’ll take risks they wouldn’t dream of taking on their own,” says Cass. They’ll defy stop signs and traffic signals and barge into a stream of oncoming traffic. Still others fall prey to the “magical belief syndrome,” a blind faith in the ability of traffic signals and signs to protect them against all evil. So prevalent is the belief that one safety educator tells his classes: “All a green signal means is that power is on and the bulb is working.”

Two groups of pedestrians at greatest risk are children under the age of 14 and the elderly. Young children have limited vision. “If you get down on your knees and look around, you’ll understand what I mean,” says Cass. Children also can’t accurately estimate the speed of cars or judge which direction the sound of a horn is coming from. Some in the over-65 group suffer diminished vision, hearing, mobility and reaction time—which is why the elderly account for 30 per cent of pedestrian accidents but only 10 per cent of Toronto’s population.

The cold statistics are part of the reason volunteers with the Metro Safety Council have embarked on a campaign to try to reduce pedestrian accidents among senior citizens. Last year they preached to 143 senior citizens’ groups. And last month the council focused discussions on the two most vulnerable groups at its annual meeting.

But just as serious as any physical handicap is the attitude of many toward traffic. Says Cass: “They feel they have an unchallenged right to navigate freely across the street.” One dark winter night a 72-year-old Toronto woman, dressed in black, ignored a well-illuminated crosswalk and crossed the street some 50 feet away, where she was struck by a car. At the inquest her son explained: “She was a strong-willed woman and nobody was going to tell her where she was going to cross the street.” Sidney Katz