I know how I’m going to die.
Or at least I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened this way: I’m at a crosswalk. The light changes. The red hand gives way to the walking man. I step into the intersection, and — WHAM! A turning vehicle flattens me. As paramedics scoop up my crumpled body, what remains of my mind registers the words of the shocked driver: “Officer, honestly, the guy just walked right out in front of me. He wasn’t looking where he was going. I’m guessing he must have been on drugs or something.”
Chicago has been my home for the last 14 years. I get the whole Cubs vs. Sox thing. I understand why a Chicago-style hotdog is second to none. And even though my parents owned a cottage in Devon [DEH-ven] in England when I was a kid, I pronounce the Far North Side street De-VON, like everyone else here.
What continues to baffle me after all these years is the Chicago crosswalk. In Washington state, where I lived before, when a pedestrian stepped onto a crosswalk, drivers stopped. Period.
Here, I find myself wondering if crosswalks are actually intended for pedestrian use, or if they’re more of a last resort — say, if a man swinging an ax on the sidewalk is bearing down on you.
About once a week — sometimes more — someone tries to run me over on a crosswalk — or, at least, it seems so. I’ve lost track of how often I’ve stopped or leaped out of the way to avoid being hit. Occasionally, I’ll catch a glimpse of the driver’s face — almost always serene, as though nothing more than a squirrel has just scrambled clear of his or her wheels. Recently, I’ve taken to stopping in mid-crosswalk, thrusting my index finger at the illuminated walking man and yelling at the face behind the closed window. The driver stares back, bemused.
A few months back, I got stranded on a downtown crosswalk after half a dozen cars turned in front of me. As the last car came through (on a red light), the driver lowered his window and called me a “f—ing idiot!”
All of which made me wonder: What exactly are Chicago’s crosswalk rules?
It turns out, whether a pedestrian steps onto a “continental” crosswalk — the thick, white bars like the rungs of a ladder — or a crosswalk with “transverse” markings — the slender parallel lines more typical at residential intersections without lights — a driver must STOP.
And if you’re stuck in the middle of a crosswalk stretching across traffic in both directions? Again, drivers must stop for pedestrians, not the other way around.
“You are always supposed to give the pedestrian a safe passage, a safe berth,” said Luann Hamilton, chief of traffic safety for the Chicago Department of Transportation.
Fines range from $90 to $500 for drivers who fail “to exercise due care” toward pedestrians. But that depends on police witnessing the violation. A warning is most common for a first offense, if no one is killed or injured, said Chicago Police Sgt. Michael Malinowski, a 20-year veteran. Police also consider other things, like if it’s dark out or the streets are crowded with pedestrians, Malinowski said.
To hear Malinowski tell it, Chicago pedestrians are sometimes as much at fault as drivers. He said he’s seen pedestrians step onto a crosswalk just as a red light turns green.
“I don’t think it’s an intentional aggression toward pedestrians. Sometimes, it’s an adjustment by both drivers and pedestrians to living in a congested urban setting,” Malinowski said, pointing out that the booming West Loop — new home of the Chicago Sun-Times — is filled with new residents, including many recent arrivals to the city.
Intentional or not, it’s clear both drivers and pedestrians must be more vigilant.
In 2017, 46 pedestrians died on city streets, up from 44 the year before. From 2011 to 2015, an average of 38 pedestrians were killed each year, according to the city’s transportation department. An earlier study found about one-third of accidents involving pedestrians and cars occur on crosswalks.
To be fair to drivers [I drive to work], a lot of crosswalks in this town resemble ghostly relics from an earlier civilization. And people dart into the road all the time when they shouldn’t.
When I first arrived in Chicago back in 2003, I remember driving along North Michigan Avenue near the Tiffany store. A homeless guy in a trench coat stepped in front of my crawling automobile. I slammed on the brakes. He turned to face me and, in what felt like an apt introduction to the occasional insanity of big-city life, he stepped up onto my bumper, glared, then walked away.