|Online Newsletter of the UC Berkeley Traffic Safety Center: Volume 3, No. 4, Winter 2006-2007|
Traffic safety center at transportation research board 2007
Pedestrians and drivers need more information. Or do they?
Traffic safety experts have long suspected that the behavior of drivers and pedestrians is far more responsible for collisions than road design. At the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting in Washington in January, Meghan Fehlig Mitman, a graduate student researcher at the UC Berkeley Traffic Safety Center, supplied another piece of evidence for that view.
In her paper, "What They Don’t Know Can Kill Them," she also offered some surprising reasons why.
Mitman found that large numbers of drivers and pedestrians are confused about who has the right-of-way in crosswalks—especially at unmarked crossings, those extensions of the sidewalk across a road that serve as crosswalks but are not striped. According to the California Vehicle Code, “the driver of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within any marked crosswalk or within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection…”
Although pedestrians have the right-of-way at these unmarked crossings, most pedestrians—and drivers—don’t know that. Even worse, Mitman and her group of researchers found that 35 percent of drivers surveyed did not believe pedestrians have the right-of-way at marked crosswalks.
These findings emerged from a series of focus groups and surveys conducted in the SF Bay Area in 2005 and 2006. Since completing this phase of the project (and writing the paper), the research team has moved on to field observations of drivers and pedestrians in marked and unmarked crosswalks.
"The ironic thing about our field observation findings is that it seems that people who don't know the law are experiencing a 'protective effect' – that is, pedestrians use more caution in crossing in unmarked crosswalks – presumably because they don’t realize they have the same right of way as in a marked crosswalks. Even though drivers yield more frequently to pedestrians in marked crosswalks, this observation of the protective effect begins to explain why we see a greater number of crashes happening in the marked crosswalks," says Mitman. "I realized after we finished collecting our data, that the paper should not have been titled ‘What They Don’t Know Can Kill Them,’ but rather, 'What They Don’t Know Can Save Them.'"
What Mitman means by that is that pedestrians who cross at unmarked crossings are likely to be more careful because they don’t know they have the right-of-way:
Those pedestrians who assume drivers will stop for them in crosswalks are at greater risk because they seem to take less responsibility for their safety. They depend on the driver seeing them or the driver being aware that he or she must stop. "It's not the driver behaving differently, it's the pedestrian. By not knowing the law, they’re protecting themselves."
"Unfortunately, what previous studies have found is that women with children and elderly people tend to use marked crosswalks—which actually puts these already vulnerable groups at greater risk," she added.
Mitman's findings were based on surveys of nearly 200 pedestrians at various intersections in the East Bay. She and her researchers followed up with a series of six focus groups.
She found that only 35 percent of pedestrians knew that they had the right of way in the unmarked as well as the marked crossing, whereas 52 percent of drivers were aware that pedestrians had the right of way. In the middle of a block where there is no marked crosswalk more than 70 percent of drivers and pedestrians believed pedestrians had the right-of-way, which is not true. (Those pedestrians are jaywalkers.)
More complicated intersections—say, an intersection with marked and unmarked crossing—caused even greater confusion about right-of-way.
Mitman also found that senior drivers had a slightly better understanding of the laws than younger drivers who were surveyed, but does not know why that is the case.
Although she cautions that her study was a small one, she believes it has implications for possible countermeasures. "Right-of-way laws don't address pedestrian safety very well, and rewriting the vehicle code is probably not the answer," she says. "Perhaps drivers' and pedestrians' lack of knowledge of the law is because the law is inherently confusing or unfair," she wrote in her paper.
Likewise, engineering solutions, such as pedestrian refuge islands, pedestrian overpasses, or raised crosswalks are not the complete answer. They are too expensive to address a widespread problem.
Better solutions are likely to also include education and enforcement. "And if we want to have walkable communities," warns Mitman, "we have to do this first."
How much do you know about crosswalks and right of way? Take the test.
When do pedestrians have the right of way?
Answers: 1) True; 2) False; 3) True; 4) False; 5) True
|Copyright 2007 UC Regents Last updated April 25, 2012|