Give Me a Brake

Downtown pedestrians beware—when you see the bus coming

"They are the worst!"

I hear that one a lot. There are quite a few topics, among folks who live or spend a significant amount of time downtown, that come up over and over again. Many of them recounting near-death pedestrian experiences, and the widespread disregard by drivers for people on foot around here.

But the one group that is cited over and over for having the most speeding, red light-running, and generally obnoxious drivers downtown is Knoxville Area Transit. Some of our bus and trolley drivers are regarded as the worst around.

In all fairness, that can be attributed to the fact that they're easy to identify as a group. There are plenty of careless, oblivious, and dangerous drivers. But it's hard to find a common thread among them. They may be piloting a pickup, BMW, or minivan. Rudeness and disregard can't be assigned to any race, creed, make, or model. But if you see a bus coming, I'd suggest you watch your step.

There are a lot of people for whom driving downtown is pretty far removed from what they're used to. Unfamiliarity with our mishmash of streets or just general gawking will bring them to a crawl or even a stop in the middle of the road for seemingly no reason.

But those whose jobs it is to depart downtown, make their route, and return are extremely self-assured about where their next turn is. And a lot of them are, by god, going to make that turn before the light changes. Or after, as the case may be, even if some of those pesky pedestrians are determined to get in their way. They've seen the same street scene a hundred times, and there's no sightseeing for them.

I can't count the number of occasions when I have been crossing Summit Hill at Gay Street and I've come close to being hit by drivers with their heads cranked solidly to the left to make sure there isn't any traffic coming as they speed toward their planned rolling-right-on-red.

They blow onto the crosswalk without even so much as a glance to see if a pedestrian has stepped off the curb. The only thing they're worried about is getting plowed into by a car coming from the left. And if they are actually forced to come to a stop by crossing traffic, they are then completely blocking the crosswalk. You walk behind, not in front of, these.

But even if you make it across one lane and across the divider with time aplenty ticking down on the pedestrian signal, you still have to watch over your shoulder for drivers turning left into you. On more than one occasion, I have had trolley drivers actually honk the horn as they tried to cut me off midway across the crosswalk.

At that same intersection one afternoon, as the light turned green and I stepped onto the street, a right-turning pickup honked at me and pointed to "his" green light. Apparently he hadn't paid as much attention to the sign right next to it that says "Turning Vehicles Yield to Pedestrians." And my signal—the one with the bright white walking man—was none of his concern.

A longtime downtown neighbor of mine was struck at that same intersection a few years back by a turning KAT bus. To add insult to injury, the officer who responded to the accident initially suspected it as an insurance scam. KAT's Director of Risk management, Cliff Reynolds, says that in 2007, KAT vehicles were involved in about 30 accidents overall.

As you enter Knoxville's city limits, you'll often see signs stating that the speed limit, unless otherwise posted, is 30 mph. And since there aren't any indications to the contrary on Gay Street, I assume that's the legal speed limit there. But even though 30 is a relatively low speed, it's a pretty good clip for a major urban thoroughfare crowded with motorists, delivery trucks, bicyclists, and pedestrians—even more so for a few tons of rolling bus.

I expect the new transit center will alleviate a lot of bus traffic downtown. Nearly every route on KAT's system, for now, has its start and end point on Main Street. But from what I've seen, they don't drive much better on any of our other city streets.

That said, a lot of y'all ought to take it a little easier down here. There was a time when there weren't many people on foot around after five. But these days and nights, pedestrians literally outnumber cars on a regular basis downtown. And that trend doesn't seem to be reversing any time soon.

I don't worry about the drivers who don't know their way around down here. I worry about the ones who do. Because, like those KAT drivers, they've made the trip hundreds of times. And I'm afraid some driver's ill-considered confidence is going to cost someone someday.