Pedestrian safety in MN is in the news again with this article from the Star Tribune:
Minnesota cities upgrade to address crosswalk danger
The article mentions a number of new technologies that engineers are using to try to improve safety conditions for pedestrians in crosswalks (which includes cyclists).
Alarmed by the rising number of pedestrian deaths across Minnesota, cities are turning to catchy new, high-tech ways to keep cars and pedestrians from clashing in crosswalks.
From Brooklyn Center to Becker, almost a dozen cities are melting asphalt and brightly colored plastic in distinct markings stamped into the pavement. More cities are installing countdown timers that let pedestrians know how much time they have to safely cross. And Edina is one of the few cities in the Midwest with blinking orange lights embedded in a street to catch drivers’ eyes.
I’ve recommended strategies like these to clients on numerous occasions. The clients typically report that these strategies are effective, but of course, most clients do not conduct before-and-after studies to confirm this. The Strib article acknowledges that we don’t know to what extent these devices are effective:
Some experts caution research hasn’t proved the new markings are more effective at alerting drivers.
“Right now, they’re new and different and eye-catching,” said Sue Groth, state traffic engineer. “But are the motorists going to be looking at the pavement markings and not at pedestrians? Are they more effective is the question that needs to be answered.”
Whether the devices themselves result in a measurable safety improvement is one question. Another question is to what extent the benefits of these products are diminished as they become more widely deployed. Flashing lights at one crosswalk may raise driver awareness because they are unique. If flashing lights were installed at every crosswalk, the benefits of all installations may be diminished as they are no longer unique.
The article also touched on a pet-peeve of mine:
In St. Paul, city engineers say they haven’t seen a difference in incidents after special markings were put in at the Selby Avenue and Victoria Street intersection. Instead, they worry it gives pedestrians a false sense of security.
The “false sense of security” theory is largely unfounded, though it is widely repeated. Studies have shown that in certain circumstances, pedestrian crashes are higher at locations with marked crosswalks compared to similar locations without marked crosswalks. However, there is no evidence to conclude that this is because pedestrians are exhibiting riskier behavior where crosswalks are present. It may be the case, but this has not been demonstrated. For more on this topic, see pages 4-10 of this study.