Crosswalks can be Dangerous Territory

Crossing a busy street can be a stressful experience. The pedestrian must calculate the movements and intentions of often behemoth vehicles driven by people not uncommonly talking on a cell phone, texting, viewing their GPS, or engaging in other distracted driving behaviors. Many pedestrians assume that they are at least safe in the middle of a crosswalk. Unfortunately, crosswalks can be danger zones. No less caution must be exercised by a pedestrian in a crosswalk than anywhere else near vehicular traffic.

Many drivers maintain their speed as they approach the crosswalk, jamming on their brakes only if a pedestrian is well inside the walk or is daring enough to begin the treacherous journey to the other side of the street. Distracted driving seems increasingly to be the norm. Especially dangerous are the crosswalks on roads that accommodate two lanes of traffic or roads that widen as they approach right and left turn lanes. Often, as a stopped line of cars allows a pedestrian to enter the crosswalk, an impatient driver, perhaps too far back to see the pedestrian, will pull out of the line and accelerate toward the turn lane and toward the pedestrian in the crosswalk. At times, drivers who are obviously aware of someone in the crosswalk, practice the rolling slowdown rather than stopping, and continue far too close for safety, to the pedestrian.

Neither age, youth, disability or gender seems to ameliorate the aggressive driving practices near many crosswalks, even those near schools. Pedestrians cautiously and rightfully within crosswalks have been struck by cars all across the Commonwealth, and undoubtedly will be hit again. Tragedies are inevitable. Officials in some cities and towns appear to be aware of the problem and have taken remedial steps. Measures advanced to date in most municipalities, however, have been inadequate. Repainted lines or yellow signs to increase visibility, help, but do not seem to affect those drivers who are too rude, narcissistic or reckless, to pay heed to others. Periodic police efforts to ticket crosswalk scofflaws are too haphazard to have lasting effect. Community-wide education initiatives are important, but their impact can be fleeting.

The status quo is unacceptable, but determining what measures will best protect pedestrians is not simple. For example, a study of pedestrian accidents at 1,000 marked crosswalks and 1,000 unmarked crossing sites, conducted for the Federal Highway Administration by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, yielded some disturbing results. Marked crosswalks at locations without other traffic controls such as traffic lights, did not significantly lower the rate of pedestrian accidents. Moreover, on multi-lane, high volume roads, marked crosswalks with no additional traffic controls, were associated with higher rates of pedestrian accidents compared to unmarked crossing sites. The University of North Carolina study conclusions are consistent with empirical observations of busy Newton crosswalks – crosswalks alone often do not adequately protect pedestrians.

Some measures supplement crosswalks were found to be effective, the measure used dependent on the specifics of the site. Examples include: advance stop lines with the warning sign "STOP HERE FOR CROSSWALK;" eliminating parking near the crosswalk; employment of remote sensing technologies to light up a "pedestrian in crosswalk" sign when a pedestrian enters; employing traffic calming measures such as speed bumps near a crosswalk; augmenting the crosswalk with flashing warning signs at particularly dangerous crossings. The list is not exclusive. As can be readily appreciated, not every remedy would be needed or appropriate at all crossings.

Despite the complexity of solving the problem of dangerous crosswalks, one fact is clear – the driver always has the responsibility of being aware of and yielding to pedestrians. A person who is injured within a crosswalk has a strong legal claim against the driver and should contact counsel and pursue their case aggressively. Through a combination of efforts, including lawsuits against careless drivers, perhaps driving habits will one day change for the better.