Crosswalks Can Spell Danger for Back-to-School, Prof Says

September 03, 2013 - News Release

As thousands of children recommence their daily trek back to school today, University of Guelph researchers are reminding people that walking isn’t always a safe mode of transportation, especially for children.

Since 2000, more than 30,000 children have suffered life-changing injuries due to pedestrian crosswalk collisions, according to Transport Canada. These dramatic numbers are one reason psychology professor Lana Trick conducted a study to look for safer ways to set up pedestrian crosswalks in Canada.

One common type of crosswalk is the non-signalized crosswalk: a crosswalk with signs and line markings on the road but no signal lights. Trick says that many drivers do not even slow down, let alone allow the pedestrians to cross. And some do not even look to see if there are pedestrians at non-signalized pedestrian crosswalks. This, she says, poses a serious risk to pedestrians.

“It’s dangerous because pedestrians may assume that cars will stop. “You might have someone – a child, let’s say – who will think it’s safe to cross just because they’re standing at a designated pedestrian crosswalk. Or you might have a person with limited vision who can’t see a car but starts to cross.”

Trick wants to know how to set up non-signalized crosswalks so that drivers will be more inclined to behave appropriately, looking for pedestrians and slowing to let them cross.

In her DRIVE laboratory on campus, she and her research team use eye-track monitors to measure where drivers are looking, and a high-fidelity driving simulator – a car surrounded by viewing screens to put drivers in a virtual reality driving environment – to measure driver behaviour.

One theory they tested is that posting more signs would increase driver awareness of non-signalized crosswalks. Trick found that increasing the number of signs, including both overhead and ground-mounted signs, did not increase the likelihood that the driver would look at the signs, let alone the pedestrians. Furthermore, even when drivers looked at the signs, many behaved as if they had not.

“Once drivers see a crosswalk sign, you’d think that their next move would be to look and see if a pedestrian is at the curb, waiting to cross,” Trick said. “Yet, some drivers looked at the signs but did not look at the pedestrian.”

Others looked at the signs and the pedestrian, but they still did not slow down, effectively taking the right-of-way away from the pedestrian, she said.

“Pedestrians would have to ‘run for the lives’ to get across in time, and there is a good chance that they would not make it unless the driver slammed on the brakes.”

Trick also found that drivers have different opinions about what they should do when they approach a crosswalk where a pedestrian is waiting to cross. Young, inexperienced drivers drove faster and were less inclined to look for pedestrians or stop.

“The problem isn’t necessarily that drivers don’t see the signs. The problem is that when they see them, they don’t know what to do,” Trick said.

“If the goal is to reduce the number of pedestrian deaths at crosswalks, it would make more sense to increase awareness rather than to increase the number of signs. If we are going to continue to use non-signalized pedestrian crosswalks, both drivers and pedestrians need to be educated about how to behave.”

This project was conducted in collaboration with the Ontario Traffic Council, which funded the project. The University of Guelph DRIVE laboratory was created with funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and Ontario Innovation Trust.

Prof. Lana Trick
Department of Psychology

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