Why Can’t We Have Traffic-Calming “3-D” Crosswalks Like Iceland?

Federal traffic safety officials take conformity with an unsafe system much more seriously than actual safety outcomes.

This 3-D crosswalk in Iceland wouldn't pass muster with the people who determine federal engineering guidance. Photo: Linda Bjork/Instagram
This 3-D crosswalk in Iceland wouldn't pass muster with the people who determine federal engineering guidance. Photo: Linda Bjork/Instagram

People around the world are fascinated by the 3-D illusion of this painted crosswalk in the small town of Ísafjörður in Iceland. It’s a creative and simple way to get motorists to slow down.

But if you try to make an eye-catching crosswalk design in the United States, the transportation engineering establishment won’t approve. That’s what happened to a group of neighbors in St. Louis who painted their local crosswalks and were told by the city the new markings were a safety hazard.

There’s no good research to support that position, so why do authorities frown at any deviation from standard crosswalk design? The Federal Highway Administration’s guidance outlines the agency’s thinking:

In 2011, the FHWA issued an additional Official Ruling4 that crosswalk art — defined as any freeform design to draw attention to the crosswalk — would degrade the contrast of the white transverse lines against the composition of the pavement beneath it. In deviating from previous Official Rulings on the matter that concluded an increased factor of safety and decreased number of pedestrian deaths were not evident after installation, this 2011 Official Ruling stated that the use of crosswalk art is actually contrary to the goal of increased safety and most likely could be a contributing factor to a false sense of security for both motorists and pedestrians.

Despite the FHWA’s apparent certainty, there is no rigorous empirical evidence that crosswalk art reduces safety for pedestrians.

It would be one thing if the U.S. had an exemplary pedestrian safety record to uphold. Then strict conformity with the “rules” would make good sense. But American streets are dangerous places to walk, and pedestrian fatalities are skyrocketing — rising nearly 50 percent since 2009.

Meanwhile, FHWA is still using discredited studies from 40 years ago to discourage the installation of crosswalks. It’s clear that the flow of car traffic is still prioritized over public safety at the top levels of the American engineering establishment. Instead of overhauling guidelines to reduce the death toll, we get stale guidance that discourages grassroots interventions to make streets safer.

The bottom line: Federal traffic safety officials take conformity with an unsafe system much more seriously than actual safety outcomes.

More recommended reading today: Transportation for America reports that a program that addresses neighborhood public health disparities is under threat in the Trump administration’s heartless budget proposal. And the State Smart Transportation Initiative shares a new tool that can help communities measure walkability.

  • war_on_hugs

    The FHWA guidance, while misguided at best, is still only a recommendation. Local officials who cite it are simply looking for an easy excuse. A local street is entirely different from a federal highway.

    As an aside, I don’t really get the hype over the 3-D crosswalk. In that case I actually agree that it’s needlessly confusing. There are plenty of more straightorward ways to get drivers to slow down and pay attention.

  • djx

    I don’t like this at all. It’s sending the message that drivers should not believe what they see. What’s next – fake images of babies in strollers?

    Plus, people who use a street/road for speeding regularly will blow right through it.

  • J. Scott Farrow

    I believe this type of crosswalk is far more likely to generate a big increase in rear-end collisions as drivers come to a screeching halt thinking there are concrete blocks across the road. I sure would the first time. Cute, but a very bad idea. Standards matter in traffic design.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    I have a feeling this is nowhere near as convincing in reality as it is on the internet.

  • Derek Hofmann

    Yes, especially when looking at the same crosswalk coming the other way.

  • Jeff

    Why would a pedestrian be following directly behind a car as you describe in such a way that they could “rear-end” the car that they’re running after for whatever reason?

  • Isaac B

    This will catch a driver’s attention the first few times. Once they’re familiar with it, they’ll do whatever they normally do. And besides, our goal is for the driver to notice (and respect) the person crossing, not to get the driver to see the crosswalk.

  • D Man

    Ísafjörður population 2,559. Sounds like it will work in Los Angeles.

  • J. Scott Farrow

    I meant a car vs car rear-end collision, as drivers panic stop upon approaching the weird crosswalk.

  • ItsEasyBeingGreen

    Maybe cooler? The ergo crosswalk, which accounts for how people actually walk: https://www.designboom.com/design/ergo-crosswalk-by-jae-min-lim-design-for-all-competition-shortlisted-revealed/

  • Joe R.

    Seems like a gimmick to me. A better idea might be embedding LEDs in the crosswalk which light up when people walk on them. That would give drivers a visual cue people are crossing, even if they’re wearing dark clothes at night.

  • Patrick Devine

    I asked Palo Alto’s Transportation Manager about this five or six years ago, and the reason Palo Alto doesn’t do it for two reasons; the first being that neighborhood drivers start ignoring it after seeing it the first few times (as mentioned elsewhere in the forum), and the second that when the paint gets dirty the optical illusion gets wrecked fairly quickly.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    Led crosswalks are useless and ineffective. The only thing that gets drivers to actually stop at a crosswalk is a red light. I’ve had several near misses at crosswalks with embedded LEDs in the crosswalk which were completely ignored by drivers. Several crosswalks in SF that have had expensive embedded LEDs failed to make any reduction in collisions, which is why they’re being replaced with actual traffic signals.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    And you seriously think a car slamming into another car is somehow worse than a car slamming into a person, which happens at crosswalks ALL THE TIME in this city? Think about what you’re saying here. Even if several dozen cars get rear ended each year because of this crosswalk, if it prevents a person from being hit by a car than it’s worth it.

  • J. Scott Farrow

    I think anyone who would deliberately cause ‘dozens’ of car accidents in the supposed name of safety is quite insane, yes. There’s got to be a better way than deliberately confusing/scaring drivers.

  • Vulcan Logic

    Except that generally-speaking, rear-end collisions are caused by only a few basic things: The person in back wasn’t paying attention, was following too close, or had a equipment malfunction. That’s what the 2-second rule is for and anyone who claims that “what if a car rear-ends you” as justification against anything other than coming to a full stop on a highway and abandoning your car to pick wildflowers is doing the same thing that red light camera opponents do. If you rear end someone who stops short and there’s nothing wrong with your car, you were either following too close or not paying close enough attention. Even in inclement weather, the same argument applies. When conditions deteriorate, you’re supposed to adjust your driving accordingly. Obviously if you’re on black Ice or something that’s another story but if you rear-end someone in any condition where your tires shouldn’t have trouble finding purchase…it’s your fault.

  • J. Scott Farrow

    You are still going to have more vehicle accidents up front with this weird crossing design. You might as well pay someone to stand by the roadside and randomly throw soccer balls in front of cars to slow down traffic. That’s the mindset here – that pedestrian safety is best achieved by confusing or scaring drivers, instead of trying to provide some kind of better warning that someone is in the crosswalk.

    Frankly, I don’t see how this 3D design is in any way better than a set of flashing crossing lights. These are proven systems that seem to work well, at least in my area. Let’s put more of those in, or if you want cheap – a simple speed bump can do wonders.

  • Then put up a 3-D red stop sign smack in front of the 3-D crosswalk

  • Joe R.

    Do the LEDs in those crosswalks light up just where the people are walking? That’s my idea. If drivers see moving lights in front of them, it’s likely to get their attention. If the LED crosswalk is lit all the time, drivers are probably just going to ignore it.

  • disqdude

    Yes, let’s paint these everywhere. It’s a small town in Iceland, which is completely applicable to the United States. Added bonus: Once people realize the “people” painted in the crosswalks aren’t real, actual pedestrians will get run over and killed on a regular basis. Instant population control! Why didn’t we think of it before?

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    Angie mentions a lack of empirical data from FHWA to support their claims, but doesn’t demand it to show that these are actually beneficial, effective, and won’t have externalities (e.g. increased rear-end collisions). The MUTCD and US crosswalk design is not much different than other nations with much lower ped crash rates. So how is it that this novelty is somehow the solution?

    FHWA has studied high-viz crosswalk markings and found that they didn’t contribute substantively to increased yielding or ped safety. Uniformity is done for a reason; so that we don’t have a hodge-podge of made up markings from one locality to the next. But these kinds of broadsides against “the system” are easy pickings, whereas fixing the problems actually requires work.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    Brilliant Ziggy! Let’s increase crashes so that we can feel good about a novel, untested crosswalk marking. It would be really interesting when the rear-ended vehicle is pushed into the crosswalk and the pedestrian.

  • Stephen Simac

    Speed “tables” with crosswalks centered between 20′ long ramps will physically slow vehicles down without jarring their suspension at 20 mph. Crosswalks without such protection are basically target rich environments for motorists. There was a company that manufactured these out of recycled tires in the aughts, (not sure if they still do, since their marketing was not great). They could be installed temporarily or long term, but better crosswalks are just one aspect of traffic calming.

  • Stephen Simac

    I’ve had drivers speed around me in crosswalks in Florida. One of the reasons they have one of the highest pedestrian fatality rates, The other is pedestrians themselves.

  • Stephen Simac

    I’ve read about traffic calming ruses by setting out tricycles, baby carriages, other driver alerts by the side of neighborhood roads, but obviously some drivers will not slow for any possible hazard.

  • Guy Ross

    An intersection is a feature of a neighborhood block and not of an entire city nor a country. ‘a small town in Iceland’ is guaranteed to have greater pop density and traffic volume (Yes, people in Iceland drive a lot) than the vast majority of Americans. Your insinuation that there is nothing to be gained here is very short-sighted.

  • Guy Ross

    An intersection is as local as you can get. The population density of Ísafjörður is very comparable to the LA metro and yes, there are more cars.

    The big difference is personal responsibility: Icelanders have it in spades. LA? More about the ‘me’, isn’t it?

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    A car crashing into another car that’s stopping in front of a crosswalk is not an “accident” because “accidents” imply nobody is at fault. That is called a collision, and it is entirely preventable by drivers actually paying attention and controlling the vehicles they drive. Anyone would thinks that it’s better for a person to be hit by a car rather than a car crashing into another car is insane!

    Rear end collisions, especially those in areas with pedestrian crosswalks rarely end up with personal injuries. A car crashing into a person at a crosswalk destroys the lives of the victim and their families forever. A coworkers of mine was hit by a car in the middle of a crosswalk 3 years ago, and to this day he’s still in constant pain and walks slowly with a limp, unable to do most of what he enjoyed before this tragic collision. His story is repeated several times each day every day somewhere in this city. Over 65% of visits to the SFGH trauma center are people being hit by cars.

    Do you really think the lives and safely of people trying to cross the street are less important than a few dozen fenders? I don’t think this 3D crosswalk does enough. I’d like to see road spikes pop up at crosswalks with red lights because it’s rare for me to walk anywhere in this city without experiencing a near miss from a driver who blows through a red light while looking down at their phone.

  • J. Scott Farrow

    All you seem to care about is blaming drivers, but you want to create a situation where more people are likely to get hurt. Frankly, I’ve never gotten the militant anti-car mindset, but it doesn’t make any sense to me. I’d rather keep people safe AND prevent auto accidents.

    Consider that confused drivers are likely to panic and maybe even vear onto the sidewalk at the last second as they suddenly think there is something blocking the road. This can happen when nobody is even in the crosswalk. You might actually hurt more pedestrians with such a stupid crosswalk design.

    Thankfully, the technology to improve the situation is starting to become more common in cars. The day will soon come where no pedestrians get hit by cars, but it won’t be cause of bizarre crosswalk designs like this.

  • Eduardo Corrochio

    One word answer…..liability.

  • Szebran

    Agree with rear end collisions and sudden stops.

    ” but doesn’t demand it to show that these are actually beneficial, effective,”

    That is because Angie (like most journalists) has a political agenda. Note “s is under threat in the Trump administration’s heartless budget proposal.”
    She also linked to a racist group that actually worries about what skin color people are in different neighborhoods. I hop my tax dollars arent used to fund that group.

  • JD

    er…yeah, there’s a Finnish (if I recall the location correctly) image of a child chasing a ball…they’ve found it quite effective and with the world’s top educational system, I guess they don’t lose track of what’s real and what’s not in general.

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