Most Milwaukee Drivers Don’t Yield to Pedestrians at Crosswalks

Researchers observed 364 crossings at 20 intersections in Milwaukee, and drivers only yielded 16 percent of the time.

Few motorists yield to pedestrians at crossings like this one at East Brady Street and North Franklin Place in Milwaukee. Image: Google Street View
Few motorists yield to pedestrians at crossings like this one at East Brady Street and North Franklin Place in Milwaukee. Image: Google Street View

Scan the typical coverage of pedestrian fatalities, and you’ll see a lot of assumptions about texting “zombies” or kids darting out of nowhere.

Those are the stories you tend to hear when victims can’t tell their side of the story. And they obscure a much more important question: Are drivers behaving safely behind the wheel?

A new study from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee finds that by one critical measure, they’re doing pretty poorly. Only one in six drivers they observed lawfully yielded to pedestrians. But on some streets, drivers were more likely to behave carefully around people on foot.

Professor Robert Schneider and his team tracked behavior at 20 intersections in Milwaukee without traffic lights or stop signs, observing 364 drivers with an opportunity to yield to crossing pedestrians between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays.

Drivers were required by law to stop for people crossing at these locations, but all told, the team recorded proper yielding only 16 percent of the time. They were able to isolate effects on driver behavior linked to speed limits, street design, pedestrian behavior, and the race of the person crossing.

The speed limit on all observed streets was either 25 or 30 mph. Drivers were 6 percent more likely to yield on streets with a 25 mph speed limit than streets with a 30 mph limit.

Crossing distances also had a statistically significant effect on yielding. For every reduction in crossing distance of five feet, drivers were 1.1 percent more likely to yield.

The team found that drivers were 2 percent more likely to yield to white pedestrians than black pedestrians. Other researchers in different cities have observed larger racial disparities in driver yielding behavior.

Drivers were also slightly more likely to yield to pedestrians who behaved “assertively,” either by standing in the roadbed before crossing or by raising an arm to signal intent, which the researchers linked to a 1.8 percent increase in yielding behavior.

For street engineers, the implications are clear. The more the street environment — with lower traffic speeds and narrower crossing distances, the more likely drivers will yield to pedestrians.

The paper was presented in poster form at the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting in January and will be published in an upcoming edition of the Transportation Research Record.

Hat tip: Strong Towns

  • Sam

    Ironically, Brady St (in the photo) is one of the few streets in Milwaukee where drivers regularly stop for pedestrians due to the high volume of people on foot, short crossing distances, and low speed of traffic.

    Milwaukee has a huge problem with reckless driving across the city, from speeding to running red lights, ignoring crosswalks, and passing in bike lanes. It’s worse on overbuilt roads but common on the city’s average 2 lanes plus bike lane arterials too. The spike in car thefts and police policy of not enforcing traffic violations seems to be making it worse: http://milwaukeenns.org/reckless-driving/

  • Stuart

    Nice race card play there, as always with Angie.

    Or did you think we wouldn’t notice?

  • mckillio

    That’s not playing the race card.

  • Stuart

    Claiming that blacks are 2% less likely to be stopped for, even leaving aside the fact that such a small number is within any margin of error, is a blatant race-card play.

    Angie does this all the time.

  • Andrew

    How many drivers even know what it means to yield to a pedestrian?

    (Hint: It’s the same thing that they’re supposed to do for opposing traffic when they’re making a left turn.)

  • JZ71

    There’s a direct correlation between enforcement and compliance. If the cops don’t care, neither will most motorists.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    There’s already very strong evidence in the literature for racial discrimination in driver behavior toward pedestrians.

    https://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1009&context=psy_fac

  • Jason

    “Drivers were also slightly more likely to yield to pedestrians who
    behaved ‘assertively,’ either by standing in the roadbed before crossing
    or by raising an arm to signal intent, which the researchers linked to a
    1.8 percent increase in yielding behavior.”

    In other words, a lot of crossings are designed in a way so as to FORCE pedestrians to “walk out into the road” (the very behavior drivers love to cite as evidence of suicidal pedestrians) to get drivers to stop for them.

  • com63

    Is it just me, or do effects of 1-2% in a study of 364 cases seem almost the same as zero? 2% of 364 is 6 cases, so if half of the 364 people raised their arm, roughly 3 more drivers would have stopped? That doesn’t seem like it is significant.

  • Hugh Shepard

    In my experience, in America it is rare for drivers to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk unless drivers are making a left or right turn, or if there is a stop sign or traffic light. Although this isn’t the case in Japan, where drivers will almost always stop for you if you show an intention to cross in the crosswalk; it’s at least better than China or in most of the developing world. In China, drivers will rarely yield to a pedestrian even when making a right or left turn (while the pedestrian has the right of way), making a right turn on red, or yielding to traffic on a major road, etc…. There, the only instances when drivers will yield is if you step in front of the drivers path. It’s a game of chicken. At least I feel better that in the US drivers are usually not that rude.

  • Stuart

    I can’t see how that can be. It implies that drivers will stop if a white person is crossing the road but not stop for a black person. That barely seems credible since, much of the time, a driver can’t even see the race of pedestrians.

    Now maybe I am less likely to want to stop in a low-income area, and that correlates to race, but that is a second or third order effect. It’s not racism.

    Or perhaps at night it’s harder to see less reflective people? But that depends more om clothing than skin color.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Judging from the intersection in the picture, I would say that a pedestrian would have to wander five feet or more into the street to ever be in the field of vision of the drivers.

    The intersections need bump-outs.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    So you didn’t read the paper.

  • Bernard Finucane

    That’s why safe street design is so important.

  • rohmen

    I’d say it’s a Midwest problem period, and not overly unique to Milwaukee. I grew up in Wisconsin and now live in Chicago, and Madison and Chicago (and the Fox Cities where I grew up) are both on par from my observations regarding drivers stopping for peds. in crosswalks, etc.

    Chicago started to run sting crackdowns on drivers a few years ago, and that’s seemed to help a bit, but culturally we’re still far behind some other cities (Portland comes to mind) in terms of yielding the right of way.

  • mckillio

    It’s not her claim, it’s the paper’s.

  • rohmen

    I don’t disagree with bump-outs and am all in favor of them, but I’m not going to give drivers a pass here. A pedestrian waiting to cross at this type of intersection would clearly be in a driver’s field of view. They know what they’re doing when they fail to stop. They just don’t think they have to yield, or don’t care.

  • Stuart

    You misunderstood my point. It may well be true that blacks get yielded to 2% less than whites. But correlation is not causation, and that could be attributable to a number of factors. To assume it is “racism” is excessive.

    What you need to do as well, or the paper needs to do as well, is explain WHY drivers do that (if indeed they do). Only then can you ascribe it to racism or something else.

    As I said, the idea that drivers check for race before stopping is a tad speculative.

  • Stuart

    I know but she is lapping it up rather than looking for where it is wrong. She takes the racism claim at face value. And she does this a lot, I’ve noticed – she never questions such allegations as a journalist should.

  • Stuart

    It would have been deemed “insignificant” if 2% more drivers stopped for blacks, but not the other way about.

  • Stuart

    Depends – if a high vehicle is parked next to the crosswalk then neither the driver nor the pedestrian may be able to see each other. In such a situation then as a pedestrian I would step out as far as needed to see if the road is clear, but not more. I would never just blindly walk out because I feel I have the right of way.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    You’re obviously an illiterate pea-brain with an axe to grind. “Low-income area” can’t explain the difference in the paper I cited because the six subjects crossed at the same intersection. “Night” had nothing to do with it because the experiment was conducted in clear, mild weather in the middle of the day.

  • Stuart

    There is no need to be rude. I get that you can’t explain the 2% difference. Still doesn’t mean racism

    2% isn’t much of a margin, as somebody else pointed out

    Drivers often won’t know the race of a pedestrian, so it’s hard to see that as an issue

    If you can’t explain why this happens that doesn’t mean or prove it is “racism”

  • Michael

    There’s a commonly held belief/superstition in Milwaukee that the only place a pedestrian is allowed to cross a street is in marked crosswalk, at a controlled intersection, and when the coast is clear. Most drivers claim that there is “rampant jaywalking,” when in fact pedestrians are crossing exactly where they are expected to. Earlier this week, even, I was crossing in a marked crosswalk at an uncontrolled intersection. While standing on the middle line of the street, neither a DPW truck or a police car yielded to me, so it’s really culturally embedded.

    Even the drivers that do know they are supposed to yield, often don’t yield due to legitimate fears regarding weaving traffic on our many dangerous 4 lane surface roads.

  • Stephen Simac

    journalism is mainly stenography, always has been, except for a few reporters who can’t get published because they question the authorities. Still I don’t read this as playing the race card, no more than playing the assertive pedestrian card. No statistical difference in their +- likelihood to be yielded too by drivers

    Reporting on the race card or assertive ped card is dealing the hand dealt by this report.

  • Stephen Simac

    There’s more accurate calumnies or at least creative ones. Stuart’s obviously literate, if opinionated, pea brain might be a compliment when you consider the plant family in general have a billion more years of evolutionary history than humans, and their genes are far more complex.

  • 1980Gardener

    May be some confusion regarding when a driver is supposed to yield.

    In many states, such as here in CT, you are supposed a driver must yield when you are “in” the crosswalk, not “at” it on the side of the road.

  • Tim Mike GravaGuys

    The law in the above picture says cars must be parked no closer than 15 feet from the furthest extent of the crosswalk.

    PS I’ve ended up on the hood of a car already about 4 blocks from here.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Yes, I agree with you. That’s why I like German style steel posts very near to the lane that threaten fender benders. People have problems estimating low probability events. That’s why it’s easy to scare them with “terrism”, and to sell lottery tickets. It’s also why they don’t see the danger to pedestrians. After all most people have never run over a pedestrian.

    American traffic engineers should actively increase the risk of fender benders, because it’s the best way to reduce traffic fatalities.

  • JB

    You’re right, it doesn’t seem significant. At 16% the drivers stopped a total of 58 times. Let’s round that up to 59. If the crossings are split evenly 31/182 and 28/182 is a two percent difference. I’d be interested if the researchers looked at gender difference or perceived level of attractiveness. It seems to me the story should focus on “84% of the time Milwaukee drivers are inconsiderate of everyone and are putting lives in danger”.

  • Michel S

    I do this a lot in Philadelphia. I stand in the road where a curb bump-out should be to slow turning vehicles and deter aggressive drivers from taking corners at speed. It is harrowing and I’ve nearly been hit more times than I care to admit, but every inch you give to cars they will take a mile. It’s time we took the streets back.

  • John Grochowski

    I always try to stop for pedestrians. But I do worry about being hit from behind, especially if the driver behind me is tailgating. And often, the driver behind me will verr into the parking lane or bike lane to pass on the right. This happens all over town, but especially on the east side and the near west side.

  • Michael

    Yep. the dpw needs to redesign a lot of roads down to 2 lanes to minimize the vearing. That being said, I watched a family wait over a minute in the middle of Holton @ Loyd street yesterday in a 2 lane section, in a marked crosswalk, and no one yeilded. Eventually they gave up and walked back to the curb since they were blocking north bound traffic. That’s totally nuts so education and enforcement are clearly necessary too at this point.

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