It’s time to give priority to pedestrians at intersections

October 26, 2015   |   Categories: CARSP News, News

Neil Arason - Author and CARSP Board Member, British Columbia

In Canada, in a recent five-year period, over 17,000 pedestrians were hit by vehicles turning right or left at intersections, with 167 killed and 1,268 suffering major injuries.[i] Seventy-three percent of these turning vehicles were making a left-hand turn. Intersection turns, especially left ones, cause unrealistic demands on the brain of the driver. Around the world, the nature of the problem is similar.

Configuring traffic signals to allow motorized traffic to proceed at the same time that vulnerable pedestrians have a WALK signal is madness by design, and sets up drivers for failure. This is because signalized intersections are exceedingly complex as drivers must first see and process information coming from signal heads, analyze opposing traffic patterns (including cars, pedestrians and cyclists), estimate speeds and spatial gaps, and then make split-second decisions about whether to stop or go. Sometimes, drivers receive the bonus of an angry, honking driver from behind them.

Alarmingly, we have known about these dangers for a long time, and yet have done comparatively little to respond. An engineer named Philip Habib published information about these dangers in 1980.[ii] In 2013, Toronto researchers put drivers into a driving simulator and hooked them up to a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) system. What they found was that during left-hand turns with oncoming traffic, drivers showed unusual activations in the posterior brain, suggesting certain cognitive resources, along with motor coordination, become heavily taxed.[iii]

Another study published in 2013 also contained some disturbing conclusions. Led by Oregon State University, researchers used high-fidelity simulators and mobile eye-tracking equipment to study drivers’ eye fixation movements during left-hand turns.[iv] What they found was staggering: 4 to 7 percent of drivers making left-hand turns don’t even bother to look for pedestrians who may be crossing with a WALK signal.

These studies, and countless others, tell us that most of the signalized traffic patterns we have put in place are incompatible with how humans can be expected to perform on a routine and consistent basis. In addition, we know that people make mistakes for countless reasons, many of which we will never be able to correct.[v] Allowing 4,000 pounds of motorized vehicle to legally turn at the same time that a vulnerable pedestrian has a WALK signal is a carry-over of 1950s madness when cars were largely viewed as an icon of civilization’s progress, and transportation safety framed as merely needing to be ‘balanced’ with efficiency.

Things are starting to change. San Francisco recently banned cars from turning altogether in one part of its city.[vi] Many cities are moving away from allowing concurrent movements at complex intersections and are instead using more protected turning, or signal timing that allows just one thing to happen at a time. Still, there are many dimensions to sound intersection design. We can think fully about all of the complex elements and how they can work in unison to produce workable and just design. We can take a proactive approach by helping drivers and pedestrians make good decisions, and install multiple measures that we know will make for better safety. Here are five areas of focus for improving the safety of pedestrians at intersections:

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