Walk Don’t Walk

To prevent killing pedestrians, does it sometimes make more sense to break the law than obey it?

Walk Don’t Walk
Photo Illustration by Randall Nelson
Will the driver in the red car stop, or won’t he? Everything hangs in the balance.

I am an outlaw. Almost every day a situation arises that forces me to violate a well-known, well-publicized law that, in my humble estimation, makes absolutely no sense. I ignore Minnesota Crosswalk Statute 169.21 not because I am a hotheaded renegade who hates the nanny state, or because I am some kind of righteous crusader fighting an unjust cause; I ignore the law because if I followed it, someone could get killed.

This is the situation: You are driving down a four-lane road—Lake Street, University Avenue, or Snelling Avenue, say. You see a pedestrian who wants to cross the street at an intersection without a stoplight. The law says you are supposed to stop and let the pedestrian cross. You stop. But, as the pedestrian starts to cross, you see a car coming up behind you in the other lane. Will that driver stop, too? You hold your breath. The other car whizzes by, missing the pedestrian by inches.

The next time you encounter this situation, do you stop, knowing you might be luring an unsuspecting pedestrian to his or her doom? Or do you conclude that, since other drivers can’t be trusted to stop as well, it’s safer for everyone to just ignore the law and keep on going?

After experiencing several frighteningly close calls by doing the “right” thing and stopping, I now choose the latter course. I no longer stop. And if I am on foot, I prefer that cars not stop for me.

Please understand: Not stopping for pedestrians when I should isn’t easy for me. It goes against every instinct I have as a driver. I grew up in California, in a hippie-ish coastal town where cars came to a screeching halt anytime a pedestrian got within spitting distance of a curb. In the driving culture there, pedestrians always had the right of way, and it was every driver’s responsibility to make sure that people on foot weren’t endangered or inconvenienced by people in cars. It was the law, sure—but, more important, harmony between pedestrians, bicyclists, and motor vehicles was also a bedrock credo of the culture. Not stopping for pedestrians violated a strong social code reinforced by hundreds of small pedestrian-friendly kindnesses perpetuated every day.

Minnesota is different. Every year, the state spends a great deal of time and money informing the public about the nuances of Minnesota’s pedestrian crosswalk law, particularly the part about every intersection being a crosswalk, whether it’s marked or not. Each spring, green-and-white pylons sprout like dandelions out of the asphalt at crosswalks all over the metro, bearing the cheerfully threatening message “Stop for [the little cartoon walking guy]. It’s the law.”

Last October, alarmed by a rise in pedestrian fatalities at a time when every other type of traffic fatality is on the decline, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, bolstered by a federal grant, mounted the state’s first pedestrian-safety campaign in 15 years. Called Share the Road, the campaign included ads on billboards, buses, and in other public spaces, and got its share of media attention.

The core message of Share the Road was that, according to several studies, drivers are at fault only 50 percent of the time when cars hit people; the other half of the time, it’s the pedestrian’s fault. “Pedestrians can’t do much to improve a driver’s habits, just like drivers can’t do anything about pedestrian behaviors,” cautions the Share the Road website dot.state.mn.us/sharetheroad. “We all must take responsibility to follow the law, pay attention and share the road.”

It sounds easy. But in practice, those two sentences encompass a frustratingly vast and complex web of problems and paradoxes that the state spends millions trying to counteract. Since 2003, Minnesota has been conducting a rather revolutionary social experiment in public safety through its Toward Zero Deaths program, a statewide, interdisciplinary approach to highway safety that isn’t aimed simply at reducing traffic fatalities and injuries; its ultimate goal is to transform the entire “safety culture” of Minnesota through a coordinated approach to the so-called “4 E’s”: education, engineering, enforcement, and emergency response services.

The pie-in-the-sky goal of Toward Zero Deaths is to reduce traffic fatalities and injuries to zero. The more realistic immediate goal is to have fewer than 350 fatalities and 850 serious injuries per year on Minnesota roads by 2014. Since Toward Zero Deaths began there’s been a 44 percent drop in the number of traffic fatalities overall (368 in 2011, 378 in 2012), but despite the state’s best efforts, the number of pedestrians hurt or killed by automobiles has remained stubbornly constant: 41 in 2009, 36 in 2010, 40 in 2011, and 38 in 2012. “Other types of fatalities have seen a steady decline, but pedestrian deaths have stayed roughly the same,” confirms Fay Simer, coordinator of the Share the Road program. “That’s why pedestrian safety has moved up the priority list.”

The unofficial pedestrian death toll for 2012 was 38, but that number will likely rise once all the state’s traffic stats are analyzed. Many of these deaths made headlines. In September, French foreign-exchange student Cléo Thiberge was killed crossing Grand Avenue in St. Paul, two days after arriving in this country to attend Macalester College. In July, an 85-year-old nun, Sister Mary Beneva Schulte, was hit by a truck while crossing Cretin Avenue in St. Paul. In November, a 17-year-old girl was hit by a car while she was crossing Highway 10 in Anoka, the fourth such incident on that notoriously dangerous stretch of road last year. And, of course, the infamous Amy Senser trial raised the question of whether it is possible to hit a human being with your car and not even know it.

If everyone followed the rules and did what they were supposed to, of course, some of those people would still be alive. The problem is that society’s task isn’t just convincing everyone to follow the rules; the larger challenge is in finding ways to change deeply ingrained driving behaviors that have, for better or worse, become part of our driving DNA.

In Minnesota, these behaviors include neglecting to signal when changing lanes, the inability to properly zipper merge, and a compulsion to speed up when other drivers are trying to pass. Often people aren’t consciously aware of these habits and inclinations; they’re just things people do, because they’re part of Minnesota driving culture.

Precisely why Minnesotans behave the way they do behind the wheel is as much a matter of conjecture as consternation. It’s somehow tied to the state’s rural roots, Midwestern sensibilities, weather rituals, and the various habits and tics parents unwittingly pass on to their children—but exactly how is difficult to determine. Minnesota drivers have a complicated relationship with pedestrians as well, in that they don’t quite know what to do with them.

“I don’t know why Minnesota drivers don’t stop for pedestrians as often as they should,” says Nathan Bowie, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. “A lot of factors feed into it, I think. People are in a hurry to get home. They’re distracted. They’re talking on the phone. They’re thinking about themselves. For whatever reason, they’re just not paying attention.”

And yet, the law itself couldn’t be clearer: Automobiles are required to stop for pedestrians at all intersections, whether there’s a stoplight or not, and whether the intersection is marked or not. No exceptions.

No public official is going to concede that it’s OK to ignore the pedestrian crosswalk law, even when it feels safer to do so. But when I described the scenario that turns me into a lawbreaker, many officials and traffic engineers interviewed for this story sympathized, and several conceded that they too have felt that familiar twinge of fear at similar crosswalks.

“It’s one of the most dangerous situations we talk about,” admits Share the Road’s Fay Simer.

“I’ve thought about it, but I do stop,” says Sue Groth, Minnesota’s head traffic engineer. “I slow down way ahead to let the pedestrian know I see them and that I’m stopping—and hope other cars see that I’m stopping as well. I do think everyone should stop.”

Bowie is a little more charitable toward pedestrian-oblivious drivers: “I think some people get caught off-guard, because maybe they’re driving a little too fast and see the pedestrian too late and don’t want to slam on their brakes and get hit by the car behind them.”

Statistically speaking, more than half of all traffic accidents happen at intersections, because that’s where vehicles and pedestrians cross paths most often. But crosswalks themselves are especially controversial in traffic-engineering circles because they don’t always make the road safer for pedestrians. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Regarding statute 169.21—the law I refuse to obey—several studies have shown that providing pedestrians with a painted crosswalk at otherwise unmarked intersections, particularly those that cross more than two lanes and involve high traffic volumes, can be more dangerous than having no street markings at all.

The most-often cited reason for this uptick in danger is the false sense of security crosswalks appear to provide in the pedestrian’s mind. Crosswalks give pedestrians a sense of “ownership” over the road, according to a five-year study done by the U.S. Department of Transportation involving 1,000 marked and 1,000 unmarked intersections. Apparently, pedestrians interpret those few white stripes on the pavement as a kind of invisible force field that repels oncoming traffic, which gives them a false sense of security that makes them take fewer precautions than they should.

“There’s nothing magic about a crosswalk,” says Paul St. Martin, St. Paul’s head traffic engineer. “Folks who think that once you stripe the road people are going to automatically stop are kidding themselves.”

In traffic-engineering parlance, the driving situation that vexes me is called a “multiple-threat” crash scenario, because there are at least three actors involved: the pedestrian, the stopped car, and the car that won’t stop. In the USDOT study, almost 20 percent of all crashes in marked, uncontrolled intersections resulted from a pedestrian walking in front of a stopped car, only to be plowed down by a car in the adjacent lane that didn’t stop. In that same study, at identical intersections without a marked crosswalk, there were no multiple-threat crashes. None.

It’s not hard to see why. Drivers are more likely to stop for pedestrians at marked crosswalks, setting up the one-two punch in the first place. And pedestrians are more likely to cross in front of a stopped car at a marked intersection. If the intersection has no marked crosswalk, pedestrians tend to have a healthier respect for—and distrust of—oncoming motorists.

“Pedestrians have to realize that it’s a lot easier for them to see motorists than it is for motorists to see them, especially at night or under adverse weather conditions,” cautions Nathan Bowie of the Department of Public Safety. “It’s the pedestrian’s responsibility to cross with caution, just like it’s the driver’s responsibility to look out for pedestrians.”

Speed and traffic volume are also important factors. Forty miles per hour appears to be the magic number around which many traffic-engineering decisions are made. Motorists are much more likely to stop for pedestrians if they are going less than 40 miles per hour, and almost certain to stop if they are going 20 miles per hour or less.

Speed is also important because, according to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, pedestrians hit by a car traveling 40 miles per hour have an 85 percent chance of dying. The death rate drops dramatically from there. A pedestrian hit by a car traveling 30 miles per hour dies only 45 percent of the time. At 20 miles per hour it’s less than 5 percent.

The physics of a two-ton automobile hitting a human being are complicated and depend on many factors, such as the weight and speed of the car, the height of the car’s bumper, the height and weight of the person being hit, and so on. The main reason people tend to die if they get hit by a standard-size car going 40 miles per hour is that the bumper clips them at the knees, their feet fly out from underneath them, their torso goes horizontal, and their head smashes into the windshield. At less than 40 miles per hour, a person’s head is less likely to hit the windshield and the person is much more likely to roll off to one side or the other, where the chances of getting seriously injured decrease according to the speed at which they are hit. (Many cars now have rounded front ends not only for style reasons, but because a rounded front bumper increases the likelihood that someone hit by that car will roll off and away from the car rather than get pegged to the grill or smashed by a square corner.) Some countries—Germany, Finland, and Norway among them—don’t allow crosswalks at all on multiple-lane roads where the speed limit is higher than 40 miles per hour. Why? Because it’s the easiest way to eliminate unnecessary deaths.

If the safety value of crosswalks at uncontrolled intersections is negligible at best, and fatal at worst, the question must be begged: Why install them at all? If leaving those intersections un-striped is arguably safer, and obviously cheaper, doesn’t it make more sense to leave them alone? Furthermore, if the part of the pedestrian-crosswalk law about every intersection being a crosswalk causes so much confusion and uncertainty, why not change the law?

This summer, the stretch of Snelling Avenue in St. Paul from I-94 to West 7th Street was regraded and repaved. It’s a textbook example of a busy four-lane road where people regularly drive 10 to 15 miles per hour over the posted 30 mph speed limit. It’s a road where, it would seem, encouraging people to cross anywhere but stoplights would be inadvisable.

In addition to making the road smoother, part of the Snelling project involved reassessing the crosswalk situation, particularly at unmarked intersections. As a result, several crosswalks were added at intersections, particularly bus stops, where previously there had been nothing but four lanes of black asphalt. Twenty-three non-stoplight crossings now pepper that three-mile stretch alone. Paul St. Martin, St. Paul’s head traffic engineer, is the man who ultimately signed off on those additional crosswalks. Why did he do it?

It’s complicated.

“We keep in mind those studies about higher crash rates at intersections like that,” says St. Martin. “But there are a lot of other factors to consider.” Before putting a crosswalk in, he explains, “we look at volume of traffic, speed, number of pedestrians, how close the crossing is to a traffic signal, how well pedestrians can see oncoming cars.”

Public perception and pressure are another important factor. “At public forums, it’s clear that people think crosswalks are safer, and they want us to put them in because they want people to know that pedestrians are crossing the road. The public also wants crosswalks to reinforce the idea that pedestrians have the right of way and that the law says vehicles should stop.”

Each location has its own circumstances, says St. Martin, and all factors are weighed. “We use our experience and judgment,” he says. “If we think it’s unsafe to put a crosswalk in, we won’t.”

He’s also quick to add that he and his crew don’t just paint the road; they add additional signage, use thick, block-style “zebra” crosswalks that are easier for drivers to see, and paint them with high-visibility paint in squares that are grooved to improve reflection at night.

Still, when asked if he himself would step into one of his own crosswalks in front of a stopped car, he quickly replied, “No. I wait until the road is clear, and then I cross.” In general, he says, “pedestrians need to take responsibility for their own safety.”

Uncontrolled crosswalks are by definition places where cars and people cross paths with nothing between them and disaster except some mutual alertness, a little eye contact, and a healthy dose of common sense. Common sense breaks down, however, when not everyone acts the same way in certain situations. I stop for pedestrians on a four-lane road if there is no other traffic, but I do not stop for them if there is danger posed by other cars, particularly those behind me. I would stop, though, if I believed my fellow motorists would do the same. Unfortunately, I currently believe that many of my fellow Minnesotans can’t be trusted. The big question, then—the one with which our society is constantly struggling—is how to change the thinking and instincts of the driver who doesn’t stop?

Culturally speaking, the challenge of getting inside renegade drivers’ heads and planting a message strong enough to persuade them to change their behavior is daunting. The state can bombard people all day with traffic signs, billboards, PSAs, statistics, and cautionary news stories, but if these people are not inclined to stop, they won’t.

Everyone knows they should buckle their seat belt while driving, for instance—and 94 percent of us do it. But 6 percent don’t. Interestingly, if you look at crash-fatality statistics, fully half of all traffic deaths occur because the driver wasn’t wearing a seat belt. In other words, that tiny 6 percent subset of free thinkers accounts for 50 percent of all traffic deaths. So, to dramatically reduce traffic deaths, all the state has to do is persuade a tiny percentage of people to take a more active interest in their own survival.

But if there are people out there who don’t care about their own survival, what are the chances that some well-intentioned “education” is going to persuade them to care about other people’s lives? Most people obey traffic laws, more or less, but the jerks who don’t are legion. They speed, drive drunk, ignore stop signs, run red lights, whiz up and down residential streets and alleys, refuse to signal, cut you off (then flip you off), blast their brights at night, make manic left turns in front of oncoming traffic, honk in traffic jams, and basically behave as if their time and priorities are more important than everyone else’s. You know them. You hate them. You hate them even if you are one of them on occasion.

Likewise, pedestrians also do stupid and illegal things all the time. They sprint to beat the “Don’t Walk” sign, run Frogger-style through traffic, walk on the wrong side of the road, stare at their phones, and stroll across the street so slowly it’s as if they are daring cars to hit them.

The only real deterrents to such behavior are the mysterious inner workings of the offender’s own conscience and, in the case of illegal activity, the threat of a ticket or jail time. Stricter laws might deter some people, but the current ones seem plenty strict. The penalty for first-time violators is a $700 fine and up to 90 days in jail, or both. Subsequent violations are gross misdemeanors, with a $3,000 fine and up to a year in prison, or both. Most people don’t know these numbers, however, so their deterrent value is questionable.

Driver education, public relations campaigns, school safety programs, and community organizing are great, but we already do all that—and people still drive stupidly.

Or maybe it’s just the culture. After all, we live in a push-me-pull-you world of competing, contradictory priorities. New automobiles come packed with LCD screens, GPS systems, Bluetooth phones, acres of buttons, a lovely female voice laced with British inflections, and a plethora of other enticing features, all of which require drivers to divert some part of their attention away from the road. Those same vehicles have more safety features than ever—rear-view backup cameras, computer-assisted cruise control, sensors that detect potential crash dangers—and the people who buy them are part of the most safety-obsessed generation of adults in human history.

Minnesota itself is one of the most safety-conscious states in the country as well, but we embrace change reluctantly. People here didn’t always recycle, reuse shopping bags, buy pretzel-shaped light bulbs, or refrain from smoking inside, but they do now, and somewhere in that neurotic fog of cognitive dissonance shines a tiny ray of hope. “Changing the culture is a slow process. It means changing your own personal values, taking personal responsibility for obeying the laws, and teaching your kids to do the same,” says MnDOT’s Sue Groth. “We’ve had great success with drunken driving, seat belts, and bicycle helmets, so I think it can be done with pedestrians and crosswalk safety.”

I, for one, certainly hope so. But until all those other idiots on the road start doing their part, I’m not sure I can stomach doing mine.■

Google to the Rescue

Could technology eventually stop driver/pedestrian crashes altogether?
California recently passed a law allowing Google to test a small fleet of computer-controlled Toyota Priuses in regular traffic. The cars use a combination of radar, sensor, and video technology to navigate the roads. Google claims that, so far, the cars have driven more than 300,000 miles without an accident. The technology is so reliable that, by some estimates, 70 percent of cars on the road in 2040 will be computer-controlled.  

Giving up control of a vehicle might make some people squeamish, but if statistics confirm that driverless cars are indeed safer—and insurance companies end up pushing for it—Google-controlled traffic could be a reality sooner than you think.

The Psychology of Risk

Why even the most well- intentioned safety efforts backfire.
The idea that some “safety” measures actually make a situation more dangerous is one civic engineers live with every day. Two similar but different psychological paradoxes come into play in these situations. One is perceived risk versus actual risk; the other is known as “risk homeostasis.”  

Traffic lights are a good example of perceived risk versus actual risk. Most people believe that traffic lights are safer at intersections than stop signs, but that’s often not the case. Traffic lights make some intersections more dangerous because they introduce variables and behaviors that don’t exist at intersections with just a stop sign: people who shoot through yellow lights, over-zealous left turners, pedestrians trying to beat the “Don’t Walk” sign, less attention on what cars are actually doing.

At intersections with stop signs, however, both drivers and pedestrians tend to pay more attention to what everyone else is doing, and they have fewer accidents because of it. “Risk homeostasis” is what happens when people see better safety measures as an invitation to take greater risks. Not many people would voluntarily jump off a bridge, for example. But strap sturdy boots to their ankles and cushion their descent with a giant rubber band, and suddenly you’ve got a popular sport: bungee-jumping.

Applied to driving, risk homeostasis is what happens when drivers see better safety measures—road improvements, safer cars, and so on—as an opportunity to drive more dangerously. They might view the ubiquitous crosswalk-countdown clock—the one that goes “10, 9, 8 . . .” as a device that informs them precisely how close they can shave their last-second punch through an intersection.In the larger view, however, risk homeostasis is the annoyingly counterintuitive property of good intentions with which the road to hell is paved.  

A rise in pedestrian fatalities in Minnesota at a time when every other type of traffic fatality is on the decline led to the creation of the Share the Road safety campaign.

A rise in pedestrian fatalities in Minnesota at a time when every other type of traffic fatality is on the decline led to the creation of the Share the Road safety campaign.

Minnesota Safety Facts

  • Number of pedestrians killed in 2012: 38
  • Number of pedestrians injured in 2012: 876
  • Percent of pedestrian fatalities that are men: 73%
  • Pedestrian fatalities caused by failure of a driver to yield: 35%
  • Percent of pedestrian crashes that result in death: 5%
  • Percent of car crashes that result in death: .5%
  • Chances of dying if you are hit by a car going 20 mph: 5% > at 30 mph: 45% > at 40 mph: 85%
  • Sources: MNDot, USDOT