On Oct. 11, Pittsburgh government groups and nonprofits released a video aimed at reminding pedestrians in Downtown to stay off their phones when crossing the street. A grim reaper walks up to distracted pedestrians and shouts zingers like, “I love the cell phones, makes my job so much easier.”
The video is an advertisement for the campaign “Look Alive, Pittsburgh,” which will run throughout October with improv actors dressed as grim reapers confronting Downtown pedestrians who are on their phones while crossing the street.
Gabriel McMorland is a member of the Pittsburgh City-Allegheny County Task Force on Disabilities, and he advocates for people with disabilities and pedestrians. He has issues with the video because he says it puts too much of the onus on pedestrians to avoid being hit by cars, when drivers are often distracted at the wheel.
"The Look Alive campaign follows the same victim-blaming logic we see in far too many public discussions about people in vulnerable situations,” wrote McMorland in an email to Pittsburgh City Paper. “I'd much rather see a crew of these grim-reaper puppets pushing cars out of the crosswalks or calling out drivers for texting behind the wheel. We've got a culture that accepts life-threatening behavior from drivers as the norm, and I'd like to see more efforts to change that."
According to a study by Ohio State University, the percentage of pedestrians killed while using cell phones has risen from less than 1 percent in 2004 to more than 3.5 percent in 2010.
Some pedestrians in the video seem unaware of their surroundings, and the grim reaper scares a few who are staring at phones as they cross the street. However, each person that is walking while texting appears to be crossing the street on a walk signal and within the designated crosswalk.
McMorland believes there is a better strategy for pedestrian safety. He references an advocate in Mexico City, who dresses up as a wrestler and blocks cars as pedestrians cross the street, as a superior example of how to avoid pedestrian death by cars.
And it’s not just pedestrian advocates who are upset with the campaign. Adam Shuck, curator of the popular lunchtime newsletter Eat That, Read This, tweeted criticism of the video, saying this “grim reaper pedestrian victim-blaming stunt is some hot garbage.”
The video was produced by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and PDP spokesperson Leigh White says the intent was “to use humor to encourage pedestrians to be more self-aware.” She says PDP acknowledges the criticism, but believes the campaign is and will be successful.
“While we have heard some criticism of the campaign, and suggestions that there is an element of victim-blaming, we feel the campaign only encourages pedestrians to reduce behaviors that place themselves at increased risk and in no way absolves vehicles of their responsibility to make pedestrian safety a paramount concern,” wrote White in an email to CP. “We plan to address driver distraction in the next phase of the campaign, with the same goals of reducing behaviors that increase risk to pedestrians, bikers and other vehicles.”
The initiative plans to address distracted drivers by using Downtown bus shelters. The shelters will have white panel advertisements that read “We’re keeping this space blank. So you can keep your eyes on the road.”
Also, electronic “geo-fencing” perimeters will be placed at high-traffic intersections and will place pop-up advertisements on user’s cell phones reminding both pedestrians and drivers to monitor the intersection.
“We have all been guilty of being a distracted driver or pedestrian. We look forward to using the very technology that is distracting to promote our safety-awareness efforts and encourage people to keep their attention where it is needed” said PDP president Jeremy Waldrup in the campaign’s initial press release.