Where Are Drivers Most Likely to Yield to Pedestrians?

Will drivers yield? That depends, in part, on a few factors. Photo: Hans-Jörg Aleff on Flickr
Will drivers yield? Experts say that depends on a few factors. Photo: Hans-Jörg Aleff/Flickr

This post is part of a series featuring stories and research that will be presented at the Pro-Walk/Pro-Bike/Pro-Place conference September 8-11 in Pittsburgh.

You’re approaching an un-signalized crosswalk. How likely are drivers to obey the law and stop to let you cross the street?

According to a national survey of experts, that depends on a few factors, including the width of the road you’re trying to cross, how many other pedestrians are in the area, and even what part of the country you happen to be in.

Robert Schneider, professor of urban planning at the University of Wisconsin, and his co-author Rebecca Sanders interviewed almost 400 professionals from the fields of public health, planning and engineering, and safe streets advocacy around North America. They asked them to assess the likelihood of a motorist yielding to a pedestrian in their town at different kinds of crosswalks that do not have traffic signals.

Some interesting patterns emerged. Here are the three major factors that, according to respondents, influence whether drivers show courtesy to pedestrians.

1. The Width of the Road

This was the most often-mentioned factor: The number of lanes. Everything else being equal, the local experts said drivers are less likely to yield on wider roads. Because more street width means higher traffic speeds, it’s just a matter of physics that drivers will be less likely to react and yield to pedestrians.

2. Pedestrian Volumes

The survey respondents also expressed broad agreement that drivers were more likely to yield to pedestrians where more people walk. Downtowns, neighborhood business districts — anywhere there is likely to be a lot of people on foot, respondents said drivers are more likely to hit the brakes, because they are more likely to be anticipating pedestrians. In these area, the experts expected more assertive pedestrian behavior as well as more cautious driver behavior.

3. The Region of the Country

Okay, those first two points are pretty intuitive. A more unexpected finding of the survey was that there appears to be some regional differences in how drivers behave when asked to yield the right-of-way. Schneider and Sanders found that experts on the West Coast consistently ranked drivers as more accommodating of pedestrians than in the East and Midwest. The authors aren’t sure why that is.

How might regional differences influence driving behavior? Is it related to enforcement of the laws, or urban design, or driver education?

“It’s kind of a fascinating thing to think about,” Schneider told Streetsblog. “That’s one of the big questions we suggest for future research.”

Schneider and Sanders are planning to submit their article for publication in the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ journal this spring. In the meantime, they will be presenting some of the findings at the Pro-Walk/Pro-Bike/Pro-Place Conference coming up in Pittsburgh in September.

  • ARTGUM

    Please define an “un-signalized crosswalk”? Is it a cross walk that exists at a stop-light or does it also encompass a blinky crosswalk?

  • atlas

    an unsignalized pedestrian crosswalk is a street crossing for pedestrians that is not controlled by a signal. the right of way details at these crossings depends on the jurisdiction. here in DC for example, all vehicles are required to yield to pedestrians in an unsignalized pedestrian crosswalk. a crosswalk that exists at a junction controlled by a traffic signal (“stop-light”, “blinky crosswalk”, etc) would be considered a signalized pedestrian crossing.

  • On wide streets, I think drivers are less likely to stop because a) they don’t want to lose their momentum and b) they don’t think the car next to them is going to stop so what’s the point?

  • Fbfree

    Driver education has to be a big part of the regional difference. In BC, where I learned to drive, passing a pedestrian waiting to use the crosswalk (still on the sidewalk) is an automatic fail in the driving exam. In Chicago, half the crosswalks have parked cars blocking visibility of pedestrians, driving exam routes avoid heavily pedestrianized streets, and I’m not sure failure to yield to pedestrians is an automatic fail.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Also, I believe different states have different rules for yielding to crossers. I think CA requires drivers to yield to a pedestrian anywhere in a crosswalk while WA only requires a driver to yield when the pedestrian in on “their side” of the yellow dividing line (or so I’ve heard).

  • Alex Brideau III

    A good point, and I feel the momentum issue is directly related to the speed limit on that street. Wide street = higher speed limit = more sudden braking when a pedestrian is spotted.

    That said, I’ve found that some drivers are fairly decent about yielding when an adjacent driver does the same. If I’m driving and brake for a pedestrian in a crosswalk, the car next to me might not do the same, but often the car behind that one receives “enough warning” to yield.

    What I think way too many drivers fail to realize is that all intersections have crosswalks, whether they are marked or not. In general, most drivers unmarked crosswalks as not crosswalks at all, to the point that when I’m crossing, I can’t get drivers to yield to me, or worse, they honk at me as if I don’t have the right of way.

    IMHO, every intersection, no matter how major or minor, should have marked crosswalks on all sides unless crossing is specifically prohibited. (I’ll be happy to host a bake sale for the extra paint costs!)

  • Adam Herstein

    In Chicago the rule is:
    Swerve to avoid the person without slowing down, even if it means running over the “stop for pedestrians” sign.

  • Prinzrob

    Here in California at street corners (minus alleys) the invisible extension of the sidewalk into and through the street is a crosswalk where the pedestrian has the right of way, regardless of whether or not the intersection has a signal, and regardless of whether or not the crosswalk is painted. Therefore an “un-signalized crosswalk” is usually one that is painted at a location without a stop sign or traffic signal, and an “un-marked crosswalk” is at any non-alley sidewalk corner without a painted pedestrian crossing.

    When one considers that pedestrians legally have the right of way at all these types of locations, not even just painted crosswalks, the amount of violations on the part of drivers is astounding.

  • LAifer

    Except that the police never enforce California’s yield to crossers rule, so cars almost never actually obey that particular law.

  • Elias Zamaria

    One thing not mentioned: the race of the pedestrian. http://usa.streetsblog.org/2014/05/23/study-drivers-less-likely-to-yield-for-black-pedestrians/ I wonder how that compares in significance with the other factors.

  • gary

    I do have to admit, in SF I’ve noticed more cars giving peds and bikes the right of way of fairly recent.

  • gary

    I’ve had that actually happen to me a couple times now in SF. Ran the stop sign, swerve and almost hit the curb but kept going in front of me.

  • Danny

    Bob Gunderson has a “Pedestrian’s guide to getting along with vehicles” lol http://t.co/JKKwbwWs64

  • gary

    A $500 dollar first time ticket and a month of driver education school will make them think twice.

  • theqin

    The difference is that at least in California most people cross at crosswalks, and drivers are more likely to yield in crosswalks. In the midwest very few people are willing to walk the extra distance to a crosswalk and just tend to jaywalk. People are always surprised to hear that people in California get tickets for jaywalking since it is standard behavior in the midwest.

  • EastBayer

    I don’t think I would attribute this to any personal traits of Californians versus people from other parts of the country. After all, many of us moved here from there. Personally, I noticed that at least in San Francisco, you don’t NEED to jaywalk as often because the signal cycles are shorter and usually automatically include a pedestrian phase, which is in direct contrast to my experience as a pedestrian on the East Coast.

  • Jesse

    Intersections like this are all around SF http://youtu.be/Vm1Moji1RrE I really think the design is to give priority to the all mighty car and the only way they get any safer is if pedestrians avoid them entirely. The street design is a joke and the pedestrian is the punchline.

  • rider

    While you are correct from a legal standpoint and despite the unmarked crosswalk being mentioned in the California driver’s handbook, this is one rule that I suspect most California drivers are not aware of (like the 3-foot rule for overtaking cyclists), especially since virtually all reports of injuries that are the “fault” of the pedestrian seem to mention that they were not crossing at a “marked” crosswalk.

    I suspect that money spent on public education as well as on additional paint would be money well-spent.

  • rider

    While painted crosswalks are great for arterial streets, for many neighborhood streets, painted center divider lines and crosswalks may actually raise the traffic speed, as drivers come to believe that the street belongs to them exclusively instead of something that is shared amongst various users. For these non-arterial streets, calming measures such as bulb-outs and reduced speed limits would probably be more effective at forcing drivers to feel that they are driving in a shared space and behave appropriately.

    A few years back the street in front of my building was center-striped, and crosswalks painted on about every second or third street. What was a relatively slow and sedate street suddenly became dangerous, with drivers racing through and honking at any pedestrian who dared cross at an intersection that was not marked. Fortunately the center stripes have again worn away, and traffic speeds have now become much more reasonable.

  • Prinzrob

    The amount of rules that most drivers (even police) aren’t aware of could fill its own handbook. What we really need is a required Drivers Ed 2.0 that specifically deals with all the topics related to driving around non-motorized road users in a modern, urban setting. We need to push the reset button on driver testing in this state, as the DMV has been making quite a mess of it so far, and even well-meaning people who took their training decades ago don’t have the knowledge, skills, and appreciation needed for dealing with the larger number of bicyclists and pedestrians on the streets today.

  • David Sucher

    Goes way back into the 1950s.

    Drivers would stop for pedestrians instantly whether it was at cross-walk, corner or even mid-block, even on (as I remember) very wide University Avenue in Berkeley.

    Definitely amazing.

  • C Monroe

    In Michigan, crosswalks where cars must stop for pedestrians are marked different than normal crosswalks. This includes signs, painted yellow striping intermingled with the white stripes.

  • Alex Brideau III

    While it’s true that CA drivers don’t follow the letter of the yield law, it’s quite a bit of an overstatement to say that cars “almost never” yield to crossers. I find that when crossing in a marked crosswalk (though, of course, its marked status shouldn’t matter), cars almost always yield to me … eventually.

    In contrast, back in DC, I got stuck several times on a bare double-yellow line with neither side of traffic willing to let me finish crossing! That’s never happened to me here, thank goodness.

  • Prinzrob

    From my experience it really depends on the type of street. On single lane roads the stop rate is very high. Add another lane going each way, though, and fewer than half the drivers will stop for a pedestrian. With three or more lanes each way, though, you can forget about crossing at an unsignalized location if traffic is heavy, it just isn’t going to happen.

    Additional treatments like high-viz crosswalks, signage, rapid flashing lights in the pavement or on signs, or raised crosswalks helps, but the rate of failure to yield is still very high. When I’m biking I always look for and yield to pedestrians at every corner and crosswalk. When I see one I try to make a big deal out of slowing, and signaling a stop so people behind can see it, but usually a couple drivers will still blow past in the next lane over. If the occasions when I can get traffic to stop I often get a hearty “thank you!” from the pedestrian, as though I was doing them a special favor.

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