Monday, April 25, 2011

A new twist on the marked crosswalk debate

You run across some odd stuff when you're wandering around the internet in search of pedestrian info. Take this Special Report from Project Consumer Justice, a site that describes it's purpose as to "honestly report on consumer, legal and political issues important to the American civil justice system."

The article details a $12 million settlement in a San Mateo lawsuit over a ped-vehicle crash that left a 17-year-old woman in a permanent vegetative state. The victim was struck while crossing at a marked crosswalk on a six-lane roadway. During the trial, lawyers for the victim cited Caltrans "dirty little secret" about "when marked crosswalks can be more dangerous for pedestrians." As evidence, they pointed to the infamous 1972 Herms Crosswalk Study, explaining how it proved that marked crosswalks gave pedestrians a "false sense of security."

The article goes on to cite more recent research from the FHWA showing how dangerous the marked crosswalk in question really was, and heavily criticize Caltrans for ignoring this evidence and merely paying "lip service" to pedestrian safety. At the trial, the lawyers pointed out that according to the research a crossing on a six-lane roadway should either be removed entirely or given some serious improvements (ped-activated signals, more signs, etc.).

What I found striking about this story was that it was the first time I've heard the false sense of security argument used to advance a pedestrian safety issue. Inevitably, when the Herms study is mentioned at all, it's used by a traffic engineer to explain why marked crosswalks are such a bad idea--or by a city to justify not spending the money to add them (yes, LADOT, I'm talking about you). Though I still cringe a little whenever I hear that phrase used in association with crosswalks, I'm heartened to see that, at least in one case, it might actually have done a pedestrian some good.


  1. You're right, I have also only heard this mantra recited by traffic engineers, who think that pedestrians interrupt the free-flow of traffic. These same guys would also refer to pedestrians (only half-joking) as 'traffic impediments.' So, yes, it is good to see this argument used to a different end.

  2. It is interesting...but I wonder what lesson Caltrans will take home from it? "Let's make our crosswalks better"? Or "Let's not mark any crosswalks or make any effort to accommodate pedestrians"? I worry that it would be the latter.

    There was a somewhat similar case reported in Maryland last month -- jury found the state liable for not installing a sidwalk -- .

  3. Judging by the photo on google maps, Caltrans hasn't removed the marked crosswalk--but they haven't installed any improvements to the intersection either.

    I note the crosswalk is also marked on only one side of the intersection, forcing pedestrians to either walk out of their way to cross or risk an even more-dangerous unmarked crossing. Clearly someone at Caltrans still has the "impediment" mindset...