Pedestrian Crosswalks (or, Crosswalks) (or, Sec. 3B.18, if you’re a traffic engineer) are often requested by schools, parents, city planners, and white paint salesmen.
Yet, should you ever happen to walk within a real life painted crosswalk, please be careful. Be very careful…
When people ask me what I do, my response generally includes phrases like, “improve traffic flow”, or “predict future traffic volumes”, or “ improve intersection safety”, or “drink lots of coffee”. But when it comes to pedestrian crosswalks, well, that is a complex discussion. Studies show that a greater number of pedestrian accidents occur within crosswalks versus outside of crosswalks. Now I’m not suggesting we remove crosswalk markings, but why is jaywalking seemingly safer?
When I first learned of this, I presumed, “Well, that’s because crosswalks are where pedestrians walk so naturally, that’s where accident happen.” And I pretty much discovered that is correct. Yet, after some statistical scrutiny, I concluded a pedestrian is still more likely to get hit by a car when crossing within a painted crosswalk versus jaywalking. Hmmm…
I consulted a psychologist about this puzzlement — not my psychologist mind you, I don’t have one — that weekly appointment of mine is with a guy who claims to be my “friend” (so why does he charge me?). Anyway, psychologists have an explanation for this phenomena, it’s called risk homeostasis. The theory behind risk homeostasis is human beings have a tendency to compensate for risk in one area by taking greater risk in another. Pedestrians feel that a painted crosswalk is a safe environment and therefore less watchful for oncoming traffic.
Of course, there may be other contributing factors such as confusing traffic signals, erratic motorists, pedestrians simply violating walk/wait signals, turning vehicles (e.g., right turn on red), or poor street lighting. Some of these factors are more easily addressed than convincing pedestrians to be more alert when crossing a street — in a designated crosswalk — with pedestrian signals — in broad daylight — with cars “nowhere in sight.”
So if a designated crosswalk does not automatically improve pedestrian safety, what can be done? Basic signage and signals are essential. And for multi-lane roads, raised medians can provide a mid-street refuge and the opportunity to focus on one direction at a time. In residential areas or near schools and parks, a raised crossing (much different than a speed bump) helps make the crosswalk more visible as well as slow traffic (while remaining snowplow-friendly). And curb extensions can shorten the effective crosswalk distance and in some locations, in-pavement lighting may be appropriate.
So, the next time you cross a street in a painted crosswalk, instead of feeling invincible, imagine instead you are invisible, and proceed with great caution (pro tip: walk, don’t run).
Chet Skwarcan has over 25 years of traffic engineering experience and is reachable at Chet@TrafficEngineering.com.