New Orleans drivers, I’ve found, are not particularly fond of pedestrians. Venturing forth on New Orleans roads seems to have become an exercise in big game hunting, as some cars actually speed up to honk and shout obscenities at people whose only crime is walking. The closer they come to running them down, the greater their warm fuzzy.
New Orleans pedestrians, on the other hand, often seem to have little regard their own lives. They seem to be unaware of these strange strips of pavement adjoining streets called “sidewalks” and instead saunter about in the middle of the roadway, appearing inconvenienced when a car has the sheer audacity to attempt to use a traffic lane for its intended purpose.
Both sides need a lesson in the law and simple etiquette.
Now, objectively New Orleans isn’t actually that bad in terms of pedestrian deaths. An AOL Autos report from 2014 ranked metropolitan areas by the number of pedestrian deaths between 2003 to 2012 versus the numbers of pedestrians on the street. Although the top five cities were all in the south, New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner ranked a respectable 22nd with 272 deaths during the period.
Of course, there are still locations that seem like magnets for accidents. Back in 2013, in the midst of streetscape improvements, the city shut down all street lighting between Martin Luther King Boulevard and Napoleon Avenue on South Claiborne for an extended period. This was a massive blunder, because: 1) pedestrians cross South Claiborne a lot; and, 2) South Claiborne is a huge, winding highway with oodles of fast-moving cars.
Pedestrians, predictably, started dropping like flies. At the time, WWL-TV bluntly reported that “[t]he unlit highway from Napoleon Avenue to Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard has turned into a dangerous game of chicken and lives are being lost.”
The city’s response to the mounting death toll was to issue some robotic boilerplate about LED lighting being the bee’s knees. It didn’t answer the obvious question of why temporary lighting wasn’t installed during construction.
Thus, some of the problem relates to poor infrastructure. By way of additional example, I’ve noted in the past that the malfunctioning pedestrian signals on Canal Street are basically a human rights violation. Motorists think that pedestrians are being told not to walk, when the signals are often off entirely, or telling everyone that they can walk and not walk at the same time like some thought exercise worthy of Erwin Schrödinger.
However, most cases of pedestrian street pizza are not attributable to New Orleans’ inexcusably bad infrastructure and overall prevalence of government incompetence. Sure, every fiber of my being wishes that were the case because it fits my preferred narrative, but ultimately it’s more about Joe Blow Six-Pack and his pedestrian-smasher Coup DeVille than Mitch “Screw You” Landrieu.
In light of this grand revelation, I’m going to list the five most-ignored traffic rules that New Orleans motorists and pedestrians don’t seem to understand:
1. Pedestrians need to stay in the Goddamn sidewalk. The sidewalk is for walking. The street is for vehicles. If you aren’t in a vehicle, or crossing at a crosswalk, you don’t belong in the street. Get the @#$% onto the sidewalk and stop blocking traffic.
2. Pedestrians usually have right-of-way. Many people don’t know this, but Louisiana doesn’t distinguish between marked and unmarked crosswalks. A crosswalk occurs whenever two sidewalks intersect, and pedestrians have general right-of-way at crosswalks. Thus, where the intersection is unregulated, vehicles need to slow or stop for pedestrians. All pedestrians are required to do is leave vehicles enough time to do so. Stop screaming at pedestrians for crossing at intersections and slowing you down – they have right of way, not you.
3. Everyone has to follow traffic signal devices. The corollary to the foregoing is that you have to obey traffic signal devices. This applies to cars as well as pedestrians. Pedestrians can’t cross on a red light, and cars can’t do so either (except to make a right turn after coming to a complete stop). You ignore traffic lights at your own peril.
4. You can’t park over a blasted crosswalk. Look, I understand that for pick-up and drop-off (and basically all temporary parking) it’s perfectly acceptable to park illegally at the very end of the block. It’s a matter of convenience versus the relatively low risk of an accident occurring in a brief period of time. However, if you park for hours on end over the crosswalk, it causes more than an inconvenience to pedestrians – it blocks sight-lines and causes serious accidents. You’re causing a public hazard, so get over yourself and stop doing it.
5. Maintain a constant lookout. This one’s simple. The law doesn’t care that you were checking your phone or fiddling with some other monstrosity of modern technology. You’re responsible for not maintaining a lookout to prevent accidents, whether you’re a motorist or a pedestrian. Get your head in the game.
There you have it. If the city could get its act together and New Orleanians could just obey these simple rules, perhaps we wouldn’t be losing nearly 300 people a decade to auto/pedestrian collisions. Casual observation tells me that we can do better. Everyone, I think, should agree with that.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.