Editor’s note: Michelle Stenzel is a co-leader of the North Side planning district in the Streets for Cycling 2020 Plan and co-chair of Bike Walk Lincoln Park, a committee to make walking and cycling safe in that neighborhood. All photos feature ads in the campaign and were taken by Stenzel. -Steven
The posters began popping up in the Loop last year in October, around the same time the mannequins appeared on Wacker Drive. Most of them have pictures of pedestrians who were seriously injured or killed in a crash. Not real victims, of course, actors presumably, but the photographs are graphic. The people are lying unconscious in hospital beds, with neck braces, head bandages, facial lacerations, and IV tubes. One poster shows a crash occurring from a viewpoint within the car, with the driver’s head hitting the steering wheel and the victim’s body bouncing off the shattered windshield. Another shows a dead man, still sprawled on the street where he was killed.
The accompanying text says things like, “This could be your brother.” “This could be your best friend.” “In Chicago, over 3,000 people are hit by cars each year.” “Hit a pedestrian and your car becomes more than a vehicle.”
You can see all the posters on the city’s pedestrian safety campaign website.
When I first saw these, I had mixed reactions. I was glad that the important issue of pedestrian safety had finally been brought to the forefront enough to warrant its own public service announcement campaign. The number of people walking in the city who are hit by cars is unacceptably high, and there are concrete actions that can be undertaken to reduce those numbers, like improving crosswalk design, and restricting right turns on red. Any effort to educate Chicagoans about the carnage that’s occurring, and perhaps prime them for why it’s important to spend funds to reduce the morbidity, is a step in the right direction.
However, my second reaction was repulsion. It’s jarring to see photographs of dead and injured people on the sides of trash cans while walking around the Loop during lunch hour. As a mother, I found it particularly difficult to look at the posters depicting children or teenagers.
Is the gore necessary? One can argue that the results of crashes involving motor vehicles and pedestrians are not pretty, so why not show people the ugly reality? The posters are certainly eye-catching, and probably have caused many people to read the accompanying messages, whereas a less-graphic photo wouldn’t have caught their attention.
On the other hand, the posters bring a visual and psychological ick factor to our streets. It’s simply not aesthetically optimal to have graphic photos like that everywhere: They’re not beautiful, uplifting, or inspiring, but are instead fear-inducing. After seeing them once, you don’t want to look at them again to absorb the negativity being broadcast. They send the message that Chicago is a dangerous place if, instead of driving, you dare to walk around – look what could happen to you!
You might even argue the posters discourage walking because they’re similar to the anti-smoking notices that feature graphic photos of people with oxygen tanks, diseased lungs and mouth cancer: You smoke -> Horrifying results occur -> Don’t smoke. You walk -> Horrifying results occur -> Don’t walk.
My third reaction was trying to figure out who the audience was. The posters seem to be limited mainly to the sides of trash/recycling bins on the sidewalk, and therefore most likely to be read by pedestrians. (The campaign’s website shows that the posters have been placed on the backs of CTA buses as well.) Yet, the messages seem to be targeted mostly at drivers: “Yield before turning at traffic signals.” “Drivers must stop for pedestrians entering the crosswalk.” Perhaps the thinking is that enough people who walk around the Loop also drive cars in the Loop or in their home neighborhoods, so the message is being absorbed by drivers.
A few of the posters are aimed squarely at pedestrians: “When crossing the street, be alert. Use crosswalks and obey all signals” and “Think before you cross”. Although sometimes pedestrians might contribute to a hazardous condition through inattention or risky moves, statistics reveal facts like in the central business district of Chicago, 60 percent of the pedestrians struck by vehicles were crossing at an intersection, with the signal, according to the 2011 Pedestrian Crash Analysis (.pdf) – turn to page 20 to see this statistic, and then see “key findings” on page 6.
Therefore, it doesn’t hurt to remind people who are walking to avoid distractions, cross with the light, and so on, but anything beyond that would sound like blaming the victim. People driving cars weighing 4,000 pounds have the most potential to cause harm to others, and they absolutely have the greatest responsibility to make sure they don’t hit a human being who is in front of them. Full stop.
So in the end, kudos to CDOT for raising awareness and starting the conversation. The posters have undoubtedly made many people think about the issue, perhaps for the first time. For the next campaign (promoting bicycling as transportation? or the availability of bike sharing?) though, I hope they choose a more positive focus.
What do you think of the campaign?