Think you’re safer in painted crosswalk? Better think again, and it’s not always drivers’ fault

Cars stop while a pedestrian crosses North State Street at East Maple Street, in Bellingham in February 2016. More pedestrians are struck by automobiles in marked crosswalks than unmarked crosswalks, partly because they feel like they’re in a force field.
Cars stop while a pedestrian crosses North State Street at East Maple Street, in Bellingham in February 2016. More pedestrians are struck by automobiles in marked crosswalks than unmarked crosswalks, partly because they feel like they’re in a force field.

Question: In regards to a statement in a previous article about pedestrians crossing the street at unsafe locations, what is safe versus non-safe? I think a pedestrian crossing at any intersection is safe, but some people think only marked crosswalks are safe.

Answer: The problem with the word “safe” when talking about traffic is that it can misrepresent the risks and lead us to believe that because we’ve chosen a “safe” behavior a threat doesn’t exist. When people ask me about my job, my answer generally includes “traffic safety.” Maybe, instead, I should say that I work to make getting where you’re going less dangerous.

Let’s apply this way of thinking to crosswalks. It seems reasonable to assume that crossing the street at a marked crosswalk is safer (or less dangerous) than crossing at an intersection where there are no marked crosswalks.

From a legal perspective, drivers are required to yield to pedestrians in both situations, but you’d think the paint on the pavement makes it more obvious to a driver where to expect a pedestrian.

In reality, more pedestrians are struck in marked crosswalks than unmarked crosswalks. In the city of Bellingham over the past five years, 85 pedestrians have been struck in marked crosswalks, while only 10 have been hit in unmarked crosswalks.

Lest you think that this is some northwest Washington anomaly, other cities have experienced similar outcomes: A seven year study in San Diego found that nearly six pedestrian-involved collisions occurred at marked crosswalks for every one incident at unmarked crosswalks.

Does that mean marked crosswalks are more dangerous than unmarked intersections? Not exactly.

There is a reason that some crosswalks get paint and some don’t, and it’s primarily about volume. Cities tend to mark crosswalks in more urban areas where there is more pedestrian traffic. You’d expect that with more pedestrian traffic there would be more conflicts between cars and people, driving up the crashes compared to unmarked crosswalks.

The people that did the study in San Diego thought that too, so they compensated for pedestrian traffic volume and found that marked crosswalks still had more crashes than unmarked crosswalks at a ratio of two to one.

Part of the problem may be our assumptions about the crosswalk itself. Does putting paint on a road make a pedestrian any safer? Here’s a clue: According to the Washington Department of Transportation, painted crosswalks are not safety devices, they are traffic control devices.

If crosswalks are not safety devices, what’s the point of painting them on the road?

Traffic control devices help us understand the traffic systems we’ve all (theoretically) agreed upon so that we can travel harmoniously, each of us yielding or going, as appropriate.

You could argue that traffic control devices are safety devices because when we all follow the traffic control devices we are safer on the roads. But here’s the thing – paint on a roadway can’t stop an inattentive driver from hitting a pedestrian. And it can’t protect an overconfident pedestrian from stepping in front of a car that’s too close to stop.

Pedestrian overconfidence is actually the generally accepted reason why there are more pedestrian involved crashes at marked crosswalks. This false sense of security leads pedestrians to be less cautious in marked crosswalks. They may believe that they are more easily seen by drivers when in a marked crosswalk (they’re not) or pay less attention to their surroundings (you’ve probably seen that person in a crosswalk with ear buds in and looking down at a phone).

In contrast, at unmarked crosswalks, pedestrians tend to recognize their vulnerability. A legitimate fear influences how people cross the street when there isn’t a painted crosswalk. It’s not that one intersection is inherently more dangerous than the other, but that humans behave differently in marked crosswalks than they do in unmarked crosswalks.

This isn’t just about pedestrian behavior. Sure, it’s not wise to ignore your surroundings when crossing the street. But the law requires drivers to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, and given the mismatch between a car and a human, drivers bear a proportionate responsibility to avoid a collision.

I’ll wrap this up with some advice for pedestrians: A marked crosswalk is not a force field – it won’t protect you. It’s up to you to be cautious and alert. And some advice for drivers: Watch out for pedestrians that think a marked crosswalk is a force field.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.