Traffic deaths in New Jersey declined in 2009 from the previous year - but pedestrian deaths increased. So will the state's new law regarding pedestrians save lives? We doubt it.
The law, which took effect April 1, requires motorists to come to a complete stop for pedestrians in any unsignaled crosswalk, marked or unmarked. The previous law, which dated to the 1950s, required motorists only to "yield" to pedestrians, a standard that traffic-safety officials felt was too ambiguous.
But officials are trying to protect pedestrians by empowering them - and that is only going to increase the number of deaths. Pedestrians in New Jersey don't need to be empowered - they need to be terrified. It's much safer that way.
The new law, like the previous law, is based on the principle that pedestrians have as much right to use the roads as motorists.
No one, however, seems to be asking if this approach works.
Casey Feldman's death in Ocean City last summer was an impetus for the new law. The 21-year-old was struck and killed by a distracted driver as she crossed a street. We have profound sympathy for her family. But Feldman was killed at a four-way intersection with stop signs at each corner - and even that wasn't enough to prevent a tragedy.
Giving pedestrians a false sense of security does not protect them - not in a state where aggressive driving and unyielding personalities are, like it or not, part of the state identity.
Consider what happens in the real world:
A pedestrian steps off a curb and into a crosswalk, often quite precipitously and carelessly. Maybe Driver No. 1 is aware of the law and stops. Maybe. But will Driver No. 2 coming in the opposite direction stop as well? The pedestrian better hope so.
Will the drivers behind the first two motorists stop in time to avoid rear-ending the other cars?
And what if this is a four-lane road? Now you are counting on four drivers to stop. And the drivers behind them.
Traffic safety is about predictability, about knowing what the other guy is going to do. Traffic-safety officials may think they are making intersections more predictable and safer, but they aren't. Remember, the law applies to any intersection that does not have a traffic light, whether the crosswalk is painted or not.
Certainly, a massive public relations campaign directed at motorists is called for.
But the message you want to send to pedestrians isn't that cars will be stopping for them. It's that many cars will not stop.
And pedestrians need to do what they have always needed to do. Look - look! - before trying to cross a street. That's the message that will save lives.