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More on Pedestrian Safety in MN

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.

2 comments to More on Pedestrian Safety in MN

  • The “false sense of security” theory is largely unfounded, though it is widely repeated.

    Brings a smile to my face to see an engineer saying (er, typing) that. In my hometown of Northfield, our main commercial street is a state highway, TH 3. When MnDOT reconstructed the street, the new street had more attractive, “urban” features like decorative lamp posts and stamped concrete. But they were adamant that a crosswalk that had been painted for years had to be removed, to “enhance safety”. While they jump and down and point to pedestrians being more cautious in unmarked crosswalks, they seem to absolutely refuse to acknowledge a difference in driver behavior.

    A little over a year ago, I recruited a couple volunteers to cross the street repeatedly (one of them was even a little old lady). For both volunteers, about 97% of cars failed to yield, including a few school buses.

    While there are certainly cars that fail to yield in marked crosswalks as well, I think we’ve been too timid about marking them, especially in lower speed zones. In any case, I resent that many traffic engineers seems content to just allow pedestrians to wait for a gap in cars and then scurry across, making sure drivers don’t need to look up from their cell phones for even a moment…

  • Janne

    I’ve noticed that cars stop further back along the Loring Bikeway (along Lyndale between the I94 exit and Loring Park) now that the crosswalks/bike trail crossings have been painted green. Of course, that’s anecdotal. No matter how sure I am I’ve noticed a distinct change.

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