Study: Too Many Drivers Fail to Look for Pedestrians When Turning Left

Oregon State University’s Driving Simulator, which provides 220 degrees of projection, was used to study drivers' attention to pedestrians while making left turns. Image: ##http://otrec.us/project/484##OTREC##

Drivers turning left are a leading cause of pedestrian crashes in urban areas. Where drivers can only turn left with a green left-turn arrow, pedestrians are more protected. But when drivers are watching oncoming traffic for a chance to make their turn, they tend not to be as vigilant as they should to watch for pedestrians. In fact, 5 to 11 percent of drivers don’t look for pedestrians in the crosswalk at all.

Two Oregon researchers observed people’s behavior and eye movements as they operated a driving simulator to see if they noticed pedestrians. David Hurwitz from Oregon State University and Christopher Monsere from Portland State University found that danger increased with more cars and fewer people walking. There is safety in numbers: The more pedestrians there are, the more drivers pay attention. But if there are more cars, they take up more of the drivers’ attention.

It’s no surprise that drivers’ attention is compromised when they have to watch oncoming traffic for a chance to turn. One solution is to prohibit left turns except with a green arrow — a “protected” left — instead of letting drivers pick their own moment with a “permissive” left turn signal — a circular green or flashing yellow, for example.

Michael Ronkin, a former Oregon DOT bike/ped coordinator who now lives in Europe, said “permissive [non-dedicated] left-turns are extremely rare in urban environments” there, with far better pedestrian safety as a result. “[The] clear message in the U.S. [is that] moving cars is more important than protecting people not in cars,” he said.

Pedestrian advocates also favor a signal phase exclusively for people on foot, such as a Barnes dance, where pedestrians can cross in all directions, even diagonally, and all traffic is stopped.

But are dedicated signals the solution?

“The downside of protected or leading lefts is that it adds another phase to the signal, and means that ‘through traffic’ will sit stopped at a red light longer than if left turns shared the green time with through traffic,” said Gary Toth, a former New Jersey DOT official. “The more complicated the signal phasing gets, the more that the traffic signal ‘clogs’ up the intersection.”

That’s not just a problem for drivers. Pedestrians have less time to cross, too, in that scenario, and may have to wait longer. And the longer pedestrians have to wait, the more likely they are to violate the don’t walk signal, according a 2011 study by Wuhong Wang.

Either way, Toth says, pedestrian safety isn’t what drives engineers to install one kind of signal over another. “There are protocols that traffic engineers use to decide whether to include them or not, and it mostly has to do with whether there is so much traffic during peak hours that cars couldn’t make a left without their own phase,” Toth said. “I have never heard of anyone thinking about pedestrians in making this decision.”

The solution will be different for different contexts. In a heavy pedestrian environment, a Barnes dance could be a good solution, like in DC’s Chinatown, where one was implemented in 2010. But places like that are probably not where pedestrians are most at risk, since the presence of more people walking commands drivers’ attention. It’s the big, suburban arterial roads with high traffic levels and few people on foot where drivers simply aren’t looking for pedestrians. Does it make sense to have a dedicated signal phase for pedestrians when nine times out of 10 there won’t be any? And when the odd pedestrian would likely end up having to wait so long for a walk signal that he’d be tempted to chance crossing against the signal?

Maybe the problem isn’t how we design roads but how we design communities, Toth said. Planners put schools and shopping on big arterial roads that are designed to be high-speed thoroughfares for long-distance drivers and commuters. They fail to create connected grids for local activities. The result is wide, inhospitable roads with monster intersections, multiple turning lanes, and dizzying traffic levels – and then, says Toth, “we call the engineers idiots because they can’t figure out how to get the pedestrians safely through this environment.”

  • Joe R.

    “Push-to-cross” is one solution for suburban arterial roads where pedestrians rarely cross (overpasses are another). You just need to have a countdown timer so the pedestrian knows when he/she will get the walk signal. Without a countdown timer, if it takes too long for the walk phase to appear, the person will assume the button is broken and start crossing.

  • Anonymous

    I suspected that turning cars were far more lethal than cars going straight. Good to know the details.

  • Ian Turner

    Personally I find beg buttons insulting and marginalizing to pedestrians, as though you should have to file an application simply to cross the street. Better to rethink our urban environments so that they are not necessary.

    And pedestrians could be forgiven for thinking the buttons may be just for show: http://radioboston.wbur.org/2010/05/10/walk-buttons

  • Ian Turner

    It’s not just pedestrians that they are not looking for. It seems like once a week now I have a car trying to make a left turn while I go straight on my bicycle. This may be, at least in part, a driver education issue; at least one driver insisted that since she had her turn signal on, she had the right of way.

  • GuestCommenter

    “In fact, 5 to 11 percent of drivers don’t look for pedestrians in the crosswalk at all.”

    So at least 5-11% should not be driving at all.

  • GuestCommenter

    They don’t look for motorcycles, either.

  • BEN

    Eliminate left turns for cars at intervals Many times cyclist will go a 1 mile or two out of their way why not cars?

  • GuestCommenter

    I think the pedestrian should be given priority, since it’s the cars that make it dangerous for them.

  • Yup. We hand out driver’s licenses like candy in this country.

  • Joe R.

    Just to be clear, we’re talking here about suburban arterials where 95 times out of 100 a timed pedestrian walk signal would needlessly delay traffic. Push-to-cross allows the best of both worlds. The crossing pedestrians gets a longer time to cross while traffic isn’t delayed when nobody is crossing. I would imagine we could probably use pedestrian sensors to accomplish the same thing as a push button.

    In urban environments with lots of pedestrians, obviously they should be given priority over motor traffic.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Nothing mentioned about various models of car in which the driver can’t see the opposite corner when turning left. I’m talking about you, Prius guy.

  • Andrew

    This is one reason I prefer one-way streets to two-way streets. While drivers don’t necessarily yield to pedestrians while turning at all, in my experience they’re more likely to look for pedestrians if they don’t also have to look for oncoming motor vehicles at the same time.

  • They also fail to look for pedestrians when they’re making a right turn. One of my pet peeves is drivers who only look in the direction of oncoming traffic when they’re about to make a right turn and don’t bother looking for pedestrians crossing the street in the opposite direction.

  • Anonymous

    These signs with push buttons are ubiquitous in many European cities, on roads with few pedestrian traffic. There is nothing “marginalizing” about them,.

  • We have a winner!

    Signal activation for the ped phase is demand responsive. The left arrow could be a part of that phasing. Cut off the straight green, clear the left turn, and give the peds ample time to cross as requested.

  • Eric McClure

    The one and only thing I don’t like about our Prius is the limited visibility. And it’s why I drive extra slowly when taking a turn, and physically move my head to look in front of and behind the A pillar.

  • Ian Dutton

    I’ve opposed dedicated-phase left-turn signals in several cases. The fact of the matter is that in Manhattan, pedestrians are conditioned to walk when the cross-traffic stops, regardless of the walk/don’t-walk signal. With a turn arrow, drivers expect to have a protected phase and priority over pedestrian traffic while unaware peds walk into their path, potentially leading to serious consequences. My goal is reducing the incidence of injuries and fatalities, and even if it is the pedestrian’s “fault”, that doesn’t help stop the carnage.

  • When living in big cities, using elevator is a requirement for getting in and out of most buildings, but we know that elevator don’t stop on our floor unless we push the button. Isn’t the beg button for the elevator just as insulting to those living or working in big cities? People who live in the suburbs don’t need a file an application to get in and out of their home or workplace.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t mind beg buttons, but I do mind that they don’t activate immediately. When the light is already green, the beg button usually won’t turn on the pedestrian light until the next fresh green. When the light is red, you may have to wait a while for for it to turn green, even if there are no cars in sight. These delays prove that cities always give priority to cars over pedestrians.

  • “Roundabouts solve the left turn issue and a whole host of other problems without complicated phasing. They should be the rule whenever space permits.”
    YES! As much as people complain they seem to work great wherever I see them. They need to be large enough for fire engines and trucks to negotiate but they also slow cars down so they can stop quickly when they see an obstruction, and the speeds are low so that most collisions are non-lethal.

  • Chris Rider

    It depends on the cycle length. If the green is going to exist long enough for the pedestrian to cross safely it will change, if not it will extend the next green. If the intersection is running “free” that is, not synchronized with the rest of the corridor then it probably will extend the green then and there, which is probably the case in a suburban arterial, if it’s done right.

  • Chris Rider

    I would love to see a sci-fi -ish fix for this one day. Basically you would project a display showing the evidence of pedestrian traffic into the view of the driver turning left while he’s looking for oncoming traffic gaps. The problem that occurs for bad, or new drivers is that they are unable to look at the pedestrian traffic while keeping track of whether oncoming traffic conditions have changed.

  • Chris Rider

    As a pedestrian, I never cross in front of a car making a right turn unless I make eye contact with the driver. Pedestrians need to be hyper-aware. I’m not saying all of the impetus is on them, but just as you should drive defensively, I argue that we need to walk defensively too.

  • Cindy Sonenthal

    Consider investing in the curly overpass to get pedestrians and cyclists uniformly, predictably, safely, and efficiently across very busy streets. (In Seattle, see Delridge Way SW just south of SW Gennessee and another huge example on Rainier Ave S just south of Martin Luther King Jr. Way S over S. Mt Baker Blvd.)

  • Alex Brideau III

    At least in the city Los Angeles, hitting the button an instant after the light turns green forces the pedestrian to wait until the next light cycle. Other cities in the LA area don’t do this, but sadly LA proper does. 🙁

  • Mr. Moon

    I would say that even with a green arrow instead of a permitted left, cars are oblivious to foot traffic. They get their arrow, they go. That’s it. They were not reminded visually to be aware of pedestrians. I almost die this way several times a week, lucky me.

  • Scott Bixler

    It’s various failures like lack of attention to detail, lack of driving skill, low IQ, bad vision, cell phone use, drama, and aggression on pedestrians as scapegoats. It’s only one aspect of how an angry divided country turns against one another preceding a coming war. America is no exception and she’s increasingly in a nasty condition.

  • Scott Bixler

    America needs infrastructure critically so such as better lights, lane markings, resurfacing, new bridges, and full 1st world country modern facilities of all types instead of only catering to hand it all over to the top 1%. We also need smart public awareness signs and messages to encourage people to think about the rights of others and how to engage in situations where today it’s still just all such a big fat grey cloud of confusion to most Americans. We are so amiss, dazed, and confused…

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