Study: Drivers Less Likely to Yield for Black Pedestrians

You’ve heard the expression “driving while black?” Perhaps “walking while black” is a thing, too.

A new study, by researchers from Portland State University and the University of Arizona, indicates racial biases play a role in how pedestrians are treated on the roadway.

A recent study suggests the color of your skin impacts how long it will take you to cross the road. Image: University of San Francisco
A recent study suggests the color of your skin impacts how long it will take you to cross the road. Image: University of South Florida

The researchers observed as six subjects — three white men and three black men — tried to cross the same two-lane road. The crossing had a crosswalk but no traffic signal.

The experiment was arranged so that the men were of a similar age and build and were dressed identically. Each crossed 15 times, resulting in interactions with a total of 168 drivers.

They found that the black pedestrians were passed by twice as many cars and waited a third longer than white subjects to cross the road.

Researchers said that in an activity involving split-second decisions like driving, implicit biases that drivers may not even be aware of might affect behavior. The research team also posits this kind of bias could help explain, in part, why minority groups are more likely to be killed in traffic collisions while walking. Black and Hispanic men are about twice as likely to be struck and killed by a vehicle while walking than white men.

  • bolwerk

    If you’re going to argue that because drivers are more discourteous to blacks waiting to cross, that people generally will act unsafely towards blacks in a whole range of other situations is a stretch.

    Why? You keep implicitly ignoring that some drivers are willing to act unsafely toward people crossing at crosswalks, even if you seemed to acknowledge it once. This isn’t a question of “evasive action”; more typical are cases where the driver should halt and yield to the pedestrian and instead makes a conscious or at least subconscious choice to cut them off while they are in the crosswalk. I don’t think anyone can dispute that happens, probably almost everywhere with relative frequency. Therefore, I would be really interested to see a reason why people who are demonstrably willing to disregard at least some pedestrians’ safety wouldn’t at least sometimes have that willingness colored by racial bias that instantiates when they aren’t disregarding safety. If you want to argue that effect reduces, fine by me; I can see reasons to agree with that. But you are trying to argue it disappears entirely, which seems absurd.

    I realize it’s not axiomatic, but I’m not operating on hunches here either. There is a pretty strong empirical/a posteriori cause for concern here.

  • Guest

    Yes, some drivers cut off some pedestrians. But you haven’t presented any evidence that there is a racial bias to that. This pilot study involved people on the side-walk and not on the cross-walk. The former is about civility; the latter is about safety.

    It’s possible that there is some correlation between the two, but it is possible that there is not. And there is another overlay of doubt because we do not know the race of the drivers nor whether they even noticed the race of the pedestrians nor, even if they did, whether that was a factor.

    Throw in what I believe is the obvious fact that no driver would ever hit a pedestrian if he could avoid one, even if only for selfish reasons, and that there is barely time to perceive race in such situations, let alone act on it, and I think there is a substantial margin of doubt here.

    Moreover I have never seen any other study indicating that drivers are less willing to stop or swerve to avoid hitting a person based on the race of that person, so the only rational conclusion has to be that there is no demonstrable racial bias in accidents involving drivers and pedestrians.

    If and when you have the “empirical/a posteriori” evidence that says otherwise, I will reconsider my position. But what you have presented s far is merely inference and speculation, not evidence.

  • bolwerk

    I have plenty of evidence, most of which you haven’t bothered to refute other than to imply it’s not evidence because it’s not proof. The fact that this behavior is measured at crosswalks is evidence and so are all the other points I made about empathy and brain function. The principles that make them evidence are analogy and experimental external validity, the latter being a bedrock of experimental psychology.

    Cutting off people is still a matter of civility, perhaps all that is operative considering safety is obviously being either ignored or disregarded in this scenario. So, again, why wouldn’t a racial bias color that decision? If I’m to give credence to that argument, you at least need to come up with a reason other than mere absence of ironclad proof.

    I agree your “obvious fact” is surely evidence that weakens the external validity, but it is far from evidence that the effect would disappear. You’ve even provided evidence yourself for why it wouldn’t disappear: perhaps some people people speed up to avoid urban blacks for fear of being accosted? You’re going to say that, somewhere, there isn’t someone who will speed up instead of stop because they aren’t colored by a fear of being accosted by urban blacks?

    Moreover I have never seen any other study indicating that drivers are less willing to stop or swerve to avoid hitting a person based on the race of that person, so the only rational conclusion has to be that there is no demonstrable racial bias in accidents involving drivers and pedestrians.

    I didn’t say anything about anyone deliberately trying to hit anyone. I said there is a probability that the racial bias increases risk for blacks on the street. This is because the racial bias is likely to change how people react, not their intentions. I’m not even convinced, as you seem to be, that the people who ignore blacks waiting at crosswalks are being deliberately rude.

    The example I used – deliberately cutting people off at crosswalks – by definition almost can’t involve swerving because the driver is making a deliberate attempt to go around the pedestrian. It might involve sudden stops if a pedestrian decides to play chicken or doesn’t notice. And…might involve driver miscalculation.

    Maybe the racial bias isn’t quite axiomatic in this scenario, but the odds cutting people off increases risk for the pedestrian surely is.

    But what you have presented s far is merely inference and speculation, not evidence.

    Inference is a necessary component of empiricism. If you don’t like inference, you shouldn’t believe the results of any study and should regard science as magical thinking. But I haven’t provided any speculation. Notice my concept use: possibly, likely, effect, correlation, stronger, weaker.

  • Guest

    You’re asking me to prove the absence of racial bias and that is the wrong question because it is generally impossible to prove a negative. That is why, in a court of law, the prosecution have to prove their allegation beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense doesn’t have to prove anything, and nor do I here.

    You are entitled to believe there is some racial bias at play but I’d argue that is probably due to your own personal biases, just as my disinclination to believe it is due to mine. I’d hazard a guess that you see a lot of racial bias elsewhere too, whereas I generally believe that Americans are now post-racial. I’d guess further that you are probably more liberal than me.

    One of those biases will be confirmation bias, or seeing what we want to see. You leap on a study like this because it appears to support your biases whereas I might weight another study that shows no such thing.

    Interesting, however, that you acknowledge that one factor might be that drivers don’t stop for blacks because they fear being a victim of crime if they do. You perceive that itself as a racial bias whereas I see it as prudent self-preservation, not least because black drivers would probably do the same thing.

    This test was very limited and they used young males. A study using older women with children might have given a different result because the crime factor would not be there.

  • bolwerk

    I’m not asking you to “prove” a negative. I’m asking you to provide evidence, not proof, for your claim that the addition of a single, possibly irrelevant, variable would cause a measurable effect in one scenario to drop to zero in a similar, if not completely analogous, scenario. That is a pretty bold claim.

    Measuring biases is a popular pastime for social psychologists and political scientists alike.

  • Guest

    I maintain that you are asking me to prove a negative. You are claiming that safety on the roads and civility on the side-walk are somehow related, and then asking me to disprove that.

    I don’t have to disprove anything. You have to prove there is a connection. And that requires evidence and not conjecture.

    After three weeks of mostly speculative back-and-forth, I do not think that either of our entrenched positions are going to change. So unless you think there is some third party here who is following all this, which I doubt, then we might just have to agree to differ about the significance, if any, of this pilot study.

  • bolwerk

    Actually, you are the one claiming that a new variable, concern for the safety of the pedestrian, should drop a measurable effect/bias in one scenario to zero in an undeniably similar scenario. I’m not disbelieving that, but I am doubting it. So I wouldn’t frame this as me asking you to prove a negative. You at least implicitly made a positive claim about the effect in question.

    I just want to see some evidence for your claim. There is no proof here (or in science period, frankly), so you don’t need to use that word.

    Interesting, however, that you acknowledge that one factor might be that drivers don’t stop for blacks because they fear being a victim of crime if they do.

    Here’s the thing: there is no explanation to work from based on these types of measures. There is an imperfect measure of an effect. A certain number of people will be expected to behave a certain way in a certain scenario, and presumably there are many factors, probably hundreds, going into that behavior that can be expected to normalize across a big enough population.

    That’s why your claim about the effect disappearing is so unlikely: there is no reason to think every factor going into that thinking would disappear in a slightly altered scenario involving people crossing instead of waiting. It could reduce or increase, but only some of the plausible factors disappear when the scenario is altered and new ones are, in fact, added.

    So the point about people’s perceptions of young black males being more hostile (again, that people perceive that is backed by lots of research) cuts both ways if you alter the scenario: it might make some more likely to avoid hitting black people while making others fear their own safety and speed up, putting safety of the pedestrian secondary. All the more reason to suspect the effect might change but wouldn’t disappear.

    Not proof, I realize, but pretty strong evidence that your assertion is very wrong.

    This test was very limited and they used young males. A study using older women with children might have given a different result because the crime factor would not be there.

    If it were my research design, I would have preferred using women in their 20s. But that kind of thing might be limited to the availability of participants (probably undergrads).

    Also, if you actually believe in lack of racial bias in American society, there is a wealth of vetted research in multiple disciplines evidencing the opposite that you should be able to find in any public library with EBSCO access. Hard racism is more rare these days, but institutional and cultural racial bias alike are pretty common and measurable. The researcher who did this pilot study studies those things for a living. And it’s a popular topic in sociology and political science too.

  • Guest

    No, if I claim that uncivility is unrelated to disregard for the safety of others, that is not an affirmative statement of a connection, but rather a statement of disbelief or doubt that there is an obvious connection.

    My doubt requires no proof, but rather disproof.

    I also maintain that there is a fundamental distinction between a reflection made with time to do so, and an instinctive split-second reaction. Again, I could be wrong, but you have given me no reason to believe so.

    Again, I invite you to agree to disagree, even though for some reason you appear to have an unending desire to press your point.

  • bolwerk

    AFAICT, “disregard for the safety of others” is by definition an example of incivility (we can probably loosely define incivility as “being a dick”). Again, for your claim to be defensible, you need to show there is zero or negative effect from the incivility on safety. You don’t seem to be trying to argue that being uncivil increases pedestrian safety (negative effect), but I take it you are trying to defend the notion that there is no effect. That, in turn, means you are arguing for one of two absurdities: (1) nobody deliberately cuts off crossing pedestrians or (2) nobody who deliberately does so is uncivil.

    I also maintain that there is a fundamental distinction between a
    reflection made with time to do so, and an instinctive split-second
    reaction. Again, I could be wrong, but you have given me no reason to
    believe so.

    You aren’t wrong, but you aren’t right in the way you appear to think either. Cognitive biases demonstrably do show up in split-second decisions, even moreso under some circumstances.

    But I don’t know why you keep bringing this up, as it wouldn’t help your case even if you turned out to be right. Drivers can cut off peds as they are crossing willingly, fully aware that they are unlikely to injure peds even if the probability of doing so increases mildly. Are you denying that possibility? (The reverse is true too, of course: peds can deliberately cut off drivers, and sometimes do, but peds assume more personal risk in the process.)

  • freeksho

    Of course race matters , this study was clearly lopsided and not properly conducted.. The whole point of the study is to prove that color is to blame for blacks being twice as likely to be hit by a car and point the finger away from the actual problem. For all we know 99% of the white, blacks, and Hispanics hit by cars are done so by drivers of their own race.

    The racial make up of the test area should have been disclosed.
    The amount of traffic on the road at the times they attempted to cross. The test should have been conducted in multiple areas of multiple ethnic make ups. For all we know this test could have been conducted in a all white area with a history of being highly racist.

    This “study” is so flawed it ridiculous!

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