To Get Drivers to Yield, St. Paul Uses Psych Trick

These signs, deslayed at eight intersections in St. Pau used physiological concepts like "social norming" and "implied surveillance" to increase driver yielding at intersections. Photo:  @Indy_Austin/Twitter
These signs, deslayed at eight intersections in St. Pau used physiological concepts like "social norming" and "implied surveillance" to increase driver yielding at intersections. Photo: @Indy_Austin/Twitter

A ground-breaking experiment in St. Paul, Minn., shows a shocking pattern of dangerous and aggressive behavior towards pedestrians. But also how solvable the problem is given the right attention and policies.

For most of 2018, researcher Nichole Morris, director of the HumanFIRST Laboratory at the University of Minnesota, has been measuring driver yielding at crosswalks around St. Paul.

Nichole Morris, Director of University of Minnesota's HumanFIRST Lab. Photo: UMN
Nichole Morris, Director of University of Minnesota’s HumanFIRST Lab. Photo: UMN

Morris and her team initially found yielding rates were dreadful: Only 32 percent of drivers stopped. But they were able to improve that number more than double that using “human factors psychology,” which is focused on altering group behavior.

Streetsblog reached out to Morris by phone this week to hear more. Here’s what she had to say (edited lightly for length):

So I heard about your experiment, from seeing the sign (above) on Twitter. Can you explain this project?

The original assignment was to study what the St. Paul Police Department was doing with high visibility enforcement and the community engagement campaign around a program that they’re doing call the Stop for Me campaign. It’s been ongoing for a few years now where a plainclothes police officer crosses a crosswalk and any drivers that have sufficient time to stop but doesn’t will be fined.

Then they will have community members come out and cross the street with banners and are out there with signs saying, you know, “We Love Our Pedestrians” and things like that so that they really have a community engaged approach to encouraging drivers to look out for and stop for pedestrians.

So the Minnesota Department of Transportation wanted to measure how effective that high-visibility enforcement is. Nationally recognized researcher Ron Van Houten and I set out to measure how effective is the Stop for Me Campaign was but also to use some addition Human Factors Psychology tricks to enhance what they’re already doing and use some additional engineering strategies.

Tricks?

We started measuring driver compliance to the crosswalk law back in the fall of 2017.

We picked 16 sites across St. Paul, which is a fairly sprawling city. These are two-lane, three-lane, four-lane and five-lane roadways. We crossed them 20 times, twice a week.

We used staged crossings, and the reason we do this — where we cross the street ourselves — is, one, to get sufficient data. Pedestrians are not always around when you would like them to be. Or sometimes a pedestrian will show up but they won’t feel very comfortable stepping into the lane of traffic which is what you have to do to make drivers obligated to stop for you by law.

So we had to to do it ourselves where we sort of are walking, trying to look as causal. We stepped into the street, they have more than enough time to stop for us. And if they go through the crosswalk at that time, they’ve now violated the law.

Were they [stopping] less than 10 feet from the crosswalk, were they they 10 to 40 or were they greater than 40? That’s really important because on multi-lane roadway, if they stopped really close to the crosswalk, now they’re creating a sight trap for drivers in the next lane of travel. That can be a fatal situation for pedestrian who steps out into the next lane thinking all vehicles are going to stop — and a next vehicle could be flying down the next lane of travel and won’t have time to brake at all. We want to encourage drivers to stop further back.

Last fall in 2017, we found that about three out of 10 drivers were stopping for us and the rest were not. So it was pretty poor compliance.

When we were taking our coders out to train them, Ron was saying, “We have to have a lot of these before we would even see what a passing event looked like.” But we were seeing them sort of left and right. At the end of that fall data collection we found that about about one every every 10 crossing we were doing, about 11 percent, we saw a passing event. So one car stopped for us and the next car in the same direction of travel went right on by. Either in the next lane of travel or sometimes they cross on the right. Or sometimes in a really egregious situation they’ll actually pass on the left, go into the other lane of traffic, they’re so impatient to pass.

So that’s illegal right?

Right. [Laughing.]

I think it’s not actually illegal everywhere. It varies from state to state. 

You’re right. It’s not illegal everywhere.

Even though it is really dangerous. 

Right. It is really dangerous.

Really what’s startling is the speed at which people do it. It’s one thing to do that maneuver, but just to crawl past to make sure there’s nothing you’re missing. We see people just go through at full speed. In their mind, that car is turning left, and holding them up, and so they’re going to fly around on the right. It doesn’t dawn on them at all that there might be another reason why that car is stopped.

Was it scary for you doing these tests yourself? 

Yes. Yes. Yes. [Laughing.] Yes.

Absolutely. I do these crossings, I have research staff doing it and I have undergrads doing it. I have to be very honest with anyone working on this study that we are risking our lives to do this work. Early on, I would have these panicky moments, where I would say to myself, “Is this too dangerous?”

What the big takeaway?

It’s clear that some drivers just are not paying attention. And I don’t even mean they’re distracted, they’re looking at their phones.

People are just not scanning the roadway looking for pedestrians. They’re not looking for us and they don’t see us.

There’s other drivers that clearly see us, and some of them do this weird thing, they slow down so much we’re almost certain they are going to stop and then they don’t. It’s baffling. We finally think we’ve figured it out. They’re prepared to stop if we step out in front of them, but if we don’t step out they’re not going to stop.

I get a lot of feedback from community members who aren’t very pleased because they want me to be chastising pedestrians more. They think pedestrians are the problem and pedestrians are jumping out into traffic. I almost feel like a lot of drivers are conditioning pedestrians to do that. They won’t stop for you unless you step out in front of them.

big part of it is just convincing people the problem is real and they should care about it. And to educate people about how critical it is not to pass a vehicle at a crosswalk and to stop farther back.

The police wave was just a warning. It was just an opportunity for police to pull over more than 1,000 drivers and give them a flyer and say this is why I pulled you over and this is why it’s important not to do it.

Then in June in 2018, that’s when we did a second enforcement wave. That’s when those feedback signs (pictured above) went up. That’s what gets shared a lot on Twitter and social media. That’s using a [human factors psychology] principle called social norming and it uses other principles like implied surveillance.

We put up these big signs that said “St. Paul Drivers stopping for pedestrians” and then it has a line that says “Last week” and there’s a placeholder for percentage and “Record” with a placeholder for percentage. So social norming works really well when you can show people that the majority of their peers do a certain behavior that’s a good behavior and to encourage people to be more like their peers. If you convince drivers that most people do stop for pedestrians, then they’re going to feel more pressure. they want to be part of the pack.

The first number we posted was less than 50 percent. It was 44 percent, we weren’t proud to put it up. The press started covering it like the signs we’re designed to shame people. That was not the point. They were designed to motivate and inspire people.

(After the first week) we started getting excited because we could see the numbers were coming up at some of these sites.

R 16 signs were very effective at improving driver yielding. Photo: Steton
R 16 signs were very effective at improving driver yielding. Photo: Steton

The signs had been up for a few weeks and the local press just really didn’t pick up on it right away. Then all the sudden, you know how it works, one agency covered it, and then the rest of them jumped on. Then we had this week of just massive press. And that was where we had a big jump.

The third wave of enforcement, which was in August, we put up simple R1-6 signs (pictured right). Those went up at our treatment sites and they were very effective. We started doing another wave of enforcement. Then we started seeing compliance in the 70s, which is just a dream compared to where we were last fall.

Then we did our fourth wave in October and we enhanced those in-street signs to “gateway treatments.” A gateway treatment [see note below] is when you have that R1-6 sign on the center line and then when you have one in the outside lane. So you’re driving through multiple signs on a gate.

That has been shown by Ron Van Houten in other cities to be a really effective treatment.

Were you guys be able to see any tangible safety improvements like a reduction in crashes?

I don’t know yet. That’s something I’m looking forward to trying to do. The number of fatal pedestrian crashes in St. Paul is low to begin with. I don’t know if we’ll have enough statistical power to reach any conclusions.

Is there much hope that much of this stuff you’re discovering become more widespread and be implemented on the state and federal level? Like we never see the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration hammering this important lesson about not passing cars that are yielding to pedestrians. 

We started with 11 percent of our crossings experienced a pass event. On average we’re (now) down to 1 and 3 percent a week. So we have dramatically decreased the number of unsafe pass events.

I got a lot of criticism from people in the community or in the engineering community that would say, “You’re just going to make it worse because if you get more people to stop there’s more opportunity for unsafe passes.” We showed we could improve yielding and reduce unsafe passing. But we were really focused on it.

One thing that we did do, I was looking at the penalty for unsafe passing in Minnesota and it’s the same as if you don’t stop for pedestrians and you get caught it’s like $181 fine. If a car is stopped for pedestrians and you pass that car, it’s still $181.

The risk of those two behaviors is not the same.

We couldn’t change that because it’s a Minnesota state law, but the police department change its policy so that when they catch that behavior, they can check this box that says “endangering life or public property.” If the box is checked, the driver cannot just pay the fine and move on; they have to appear in court. That’s an extra added hurt to have to appear before a judge and be chastised for almost killing someone.

So that’s something I’d like to see more cities emulate.

Thanks so much, Nichole. Fascinating research! We hope other cities will emulate it as well! 

[Editor’s note: The Gateway treatment is considered an “experimental treatment” under the Manual on Uniform Control Devices, an important engineering manual, which means adding them involves extra work for local agencies  This is yet another example of the the influential National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices standing in the way of innovations that might improve pedestrian safety, even as pedestrian fatality rates soar.]

  • jcwconsult

    Thanks for a good debate, I am quitting now because we will never agree — and the majority of drivers agree with me.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Sincerely

    I think you overestimate the number of people who want to continue failing transportation policies and only add higher gas taxes.

  • jcwconsult

    And I think you grossly overestimate the number of people who want to double their transit times, travel on transit with no privacy & greatly reduced comfort, spend more time in 4 season weather, and give up going to some destinations entirely because they are inaccessible by transit.
    I suspect that percentage is in the single digits in most places in America.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Sincerely

    Again, it seems like you’re either not reading or not comprehending my comments. Strategically reducing automobile capacity and instituting congestion pricing are pretty much the only proven ways to reduce traffic in the long term, a goal that most of the people you claim to represent rank quite highly (though admittedly they usually want to reduce traffic *except for themselves*). Reducing traffic has the effect of *reducing* travel times, not doubling them.

    By contrast, car-centric infrastructure, perhaps counter-intuitively, almost always increases traffic. Eventually you run out of room, and in the meantime you create an inhospitable city in which people die.

  • jcwconsult

    And you are not understanding the realities that non-car ownership or rare rental usage does NOT fit most of the people in America. Your utopian non-car world can exist ONLY in a few of the biggest metroplexes and ONLY for people who do not travel much beyond their normal routes. There would be fewer than 20 such metroplexes in the USA and many of the residents would in fact want to travel reasonably often in the 50-100 mile range or further where transit would fail entirely to get them there.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Sincerely

    I’m not advocating for a non-car world. I’m advocating for an America (since most of the world isn’t as irrational about cars as the US) in which transportation funds are spent equitably and in a manner reflecting what people say they want: less traffic, better health, economic prosperity, and a higher overall quality of life.

    As you say, many larger cities would be best off forbidding personal vehicles from entering the city center, but even smaller towns would greatly benefit from reconfiguring toward active transportation and taking steps to reduce the impact of the freeways that suck the life out of downtowns everywhere.

    The community I grew up in was about 5,000 people, about 1.5 hours by car from Am Arbor. Train travel was (and is) effectively non-existent, the main street was a literal highway, and most people commuted to Lansing for work. Though nearly everywhere in town was within walking distance, you needed a car. That’s fine. But why no train connecting a string of cities with so many commuters? Why was Main Street transformed into a dangerous highway for people passing through? Why no bike lanes, and why build wide streets that encourage speeding through residential areas?

    I think you over-estimate the number of people who drive too. Or maybe you just don’t care about them? Every city in the US with over 100,000 people, which is hardly a metroplex, has at least 5% of households without an automobile. Car-centric infrastructure locks those people out. Many of the households that do have automobiles sacrifice much in order to afford an expensive vehicle. They might love their car for the mobility it provides or the status it affords them in our car-focused culture, but we shouldn’t require people who live in even moderately dense environments to buy an expensive vehicle. Unfortunately, current transportation priorities often give people no choice.

    And arguing that we should continue spending billions and billions every year to subsidize car use and that “metroplexes” are obligated to bend over for the car lobby because residents might sometime want to travel to the ‘burbs or surrounding countryside is comically sad. It’s like the people who commute in a pickup

  • jcwconsult

    Your number of 5% or even 10% who (by choice or economics) do not have a car is likely correct. That means 90+% do and the infrastructure must take that seriously into account.

    Transit works along very specific corridors – if both the origins and destinations of most users are within modest walking distances, and if most of those users are willing to live with those walks in four season weather which makes some days very unpleasant. It often also requires commuting times of 1.5 to 2.0+ the time to drive, a time penalty many refuse to accept.

    We don’t have trains, trams, and buses on every arterial because the subsidies from those that would almost never use them would be too high to get passed in a democracy.

    “Main Street” is often a highway because it is the urban route for a numbered state or US highway or the Business Route of an Interstate. Something over 400 segments of those routes in Michigan have had speed limits corrected to be at or closer to the safety-optimum 85th percentile speeds. NONE of the corrected limits has ever had to be rolled back for poor safety performance. I worked closely with two of the primary state police command officers who made that happen over the course of about 15 years. In almost every case, the actual travel speeds changed by 2 mph or less and the safety implications were not changed.

    And if it is “comically sad” to want to visit friends, businesses, and entertainment venues that are totally inaccessible by transit, then I think your value system is the one that is sad.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Sincerely

    You might be interested in checking out the “List of car-free places” on Wikipedia, too. You’ll note that many of them are small towns (university towns appear frequently).

    Just to re-emphasize: I’m not advocating for a “utopian non-car world,” I’m advocating for a world in which people aren’t forced to buy a car in order to participate in public life, in which transportation policy reflects the geometric realities of urban space, and in which governments don’t irrationally subsidize lifestyle choices which negatively affect society as a whole.

  • Sincerely

    Subsidies to facilitate the automobile infrastructure we built in the last century would also likely be too great to get passed in a democracy if they were voted on directly. (Especially if citizens had the foresight to know that the promised outcomes would not materialize.) The reason we have so many freeways (many of which are reaching the end of their planned lifespan and are in need of unaffordable upkeep or replacement) is because the federal government threw money at the states to build them.

    I can’t tell if it’s due to your mission to advocate for automobiles over everything else, or if your reading comprehension is really that poor. I didn’t say that wanting to visit people and places outside the reach of transit is sad. I’m suggesting we do more to open that opportunity up as much as possible to to the people who are locked out of doing so under the scheme you are pushing, and I’m noting that configuring our cities and our transportation dollars around infrequent trips is stupid.

    Don’t pretend that the 85th percentile is “safety optimum.” As we’ve discussed before, setting speed limits based on voluntary compliance does not produce speed limits that are reasonable for many urban environments, including my hometown. The speed limits along the main street there is 35 mph, a speed at which the likelihood of pedestrian death on impact is nearly five times greater than the risk at 20 mph. You’ve established that you don’t consider traffic deaths a problem, but you’re standing pretty alone on that one.

  • Sincerely

    Also 5-10% is a huge number considering how inhospitable car-centric infrastructure is to human beings getting around without a motor vehicle. If it is 5-10% currently, the number of people who would choose to be car-free would likely be several times that if there was infrastructure to support their needs. And that is what we see in cities with equitable infrastructure. It saddens me that you care so little about reducing unnecessary deaths, improving health, or allowing the poor to live full lives.

  • jcwconsult

    I have said this many times, I have NO problem with people who choose to live in areas where a car is unnecessary for most destinations. Assuming you are willing to carry your shopping on a bus, there are many areas of Ann Arbor where this would be possible. But your friend who lives on the outskirts of town on a collector or arterial that does not have a bus line is inaccessible.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    Interstates made long distance travel possible and were perhaps the greatest public works program since the Roman Roads. The promised outcomes were completely delivered as promised by President Eisenhower. Our closest relatives that we visit regularly are 530 miles away and are reliably, safely, & comfortably reachable in 8 hours.

    Our trips beyond the Ann Arbor bus system’s reach and any other form of transit are NOT infrequent, they are very regular.

    Remember the first 100 rules about posted speed limits:
    Absent inescapable 24/7/365 constant enforcement that no city can afford, posted limits have almost no effect on actual travel speeds, plus or minus 0 to 3 mph. Reductions in actual travel speeds can be accomplished ONLY with engineering changes that sometimes have negative effects of congestion and diversion to less safe minor streets that were never designed to carry the heavy loads of the collectors and arterials. There are many ways to improve traffic safety, just lowering posted speed limits is NOT one of them.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    Since the infrastructure of transit will never accommodate the majority of addresses outside of the centers of the major metroplexes in the USA, cars will forever be a welcome part of the lives of most Americans.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Sincerely

    You should learn some history. A quick lesson:

    According to the FWHA, Eisenhower stated that the problems the Interstate Highway System were meant to address were as follows:

    Safety – an annual toll of nearly 40,000 killed and 1.3 million injured.
    Congestion – wastes billions of hours in detours and jams amounting to billions of dollars in productive time.
    Courts – civil suits related to traffic clog up our courts.
    Economy – bad roads nullify the efficiency in the production of goods by inefficiency in their transport.
    Defense – “the appalling inadequacies to meet the demands of catastrophe or defense, should an atomic war come.”

    Safety: after the freeways were built, traffic deaths continued to rise. Total deaths peaked in the late 1960s, when the oil crisis and mandatory seatbelt laws reduced VMT and improved survival rates. The late 1960s also were when the freeway protests began seeing results and many proposed routes were cancelled or delayed due to environmental and social concerns.. Deaths per capita also rose sharply during the heyday of freeway construction, again peaking prior to the oil crisis and mandatory safety laws. Even deaths per VMT saw a slight increase during the mid-1960s. We still have annual automobile-caused deaths in the 40,000s.

    Congestion: there has been a ton written about induced demand that I’m sure you’ve already worked very hard to ignore, but I’ll just say that the US is vastly overrepresented in the “most-congested cities” lists and there is a direct correlation between cities which fell for Eisenhower’s promises and cities which are more congested today. Freeways also contributed heavily to the urban sprawl that has made cars a necessity for some. Removing freeways built under the 1956 highway act has been shown to reduce congestion where it has occurred either by choice or accident.

    Courts: I don’t have hard numbers on this, but I think it would be very difficult to argue that there is less strain on the court system from traffic-related cases today. We can get deeper into that if you have doubts.

    Economy: this is a tough one to parse, because the US boom post-WWII was fueled by a lot of things, most significantly abundant resources and a massive European demand for materials to rebuild. I’m sure increased mobility had a role, but considering that we know today that bike/ped and transit are better for local economies, I don’t think this is a solid “promise delivered.” Especially since the freeway system was a direct contributor to the demise of small, local businesses, ruined CBDs all over the country, and aided the rise of the mega-corporations that suck money out of local economies.

    Defense: Eisenhower did well here. Government forces can reach any place in the country much more quickly. I’m sure there’s some PhD student out there examining how that affected the violent response to the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam protests.

    As for the speed limit thing: I agree, motorists habitually break laws intended to keep the public safe, and cities should stop relying on outdated metrics like “Level of Service” to drive street design and instead configure public space to prioritize human lives over automobile speed.

  • Sincerely

    I’m glad we agree that city centers that are car free better serve city residents. I’d like to see more transit and bike/ped oriented suburbs. There’s no reason why suburban living has to be so heavily car dependent.

  • jcwconsult

    Interstates have fatality rates two to four times lower per mile traveled than regular rural highways. The fatality rate today is 1.16 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled versus 5.08 in 1960 when I got my first license. Driving today is over 75% safer per mile traveled than 58 years ago with our 3+ trillion VMT. Anyone who thinks traffic safety is a crisis today compared to several decades ago does not understand the safety gains.

    LOS is an important metric for engineers who want their local economies to survive.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    I did not say “car free” centers were better, I said it is fine if some want to live that way in city centers.

    There is a huge difference is walkability or bike ability for commuting for those that live 2-5 miles out versus those who live 10 to 30 miles out in order to have affordable housing.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Stephen Simac

    There’s been very little research into this, so I would hardly call it consensus. Yes, fatalities have decreased on some roads with bike lanes mostly because traffic speeds have decreased, which is great, but have disabling injuries? Until police reports, ER documentation and far more bicycle facilities are in place it won’t be possible to judge. Since education is far cheaper and longer lasting than pavement, it would seem advisable to spread what limited funds there are for bicycle and pedestrian safety around.

  • Sincerely

    You might want to talk to some engineers who are up to date on the field before making declarations like that. There are still some holdouts in traffic engineering that consider LoS critical, but they’re rightfully a dying breed. California has moved on entirely; they’re hardly hurting economically.

    What’s your specialty, anyway? You seem ignorant of just about every discipline our conversations touch upon.

    It’s nice to see you consistent with your dismissal of 40,000 deaths. We have over six million automobile collisions every year that result in significant property damage, injury, or loss of life, but that’s a small price to pay for convenient access to the city for suburbanites, right?

    Every developed country in the world has far fewer traffic deaths per capita than we do. That’s the status quo you’re fighting for. I’ll repeat: find a more ethical hobby.

  • Sincerely

    And affordable housing is even more sparse close-in when we’re wasting 60% of our urban space to ease the lifestyle choices of those who don’t want to live in cities.

    The best solution is transit leading out of the city, bike/ped/transit in the city center, and cars for those who want them further out.

    Let’s quickly reiterate what we agree on:

    1. Motorists should pay something closer to the cost of roads; you suggested $5-7/gallon, which is low, but that’s an okay start.

    2. Downtowns that are carfree, even in small cities, are absolutely viable.

    3. Motorists routinely break laws intended to protect everyone’s safety.

    4. Streets should be re-engineered to lower speeds.

    And what we disagree on:

    1. Whether 40,000 deaths annually are a reasonable price for convenience.

    2. Whether cities have an obligation to cater to suburban residents who insist on the privilege of driving.

    3. Whether the complaints of motorists about traffic congestion should be ignored and/or addressed through policy that actually makes things worse, or whether cities should instead employ effective methods such as improved bike/ped/transit infrastructure in conjunction with congestion pricing.

    4. Whether it’s physically possible to continue to expand our urban infrastructure to accommodate ever-increasing motor vehicle traffic, or whether cities are subject to the same physical laws as the rest of the universe and thusly there is, inevitably, a cap on how much road space can reasonably be dedicated to the most inefficient means of ground transport.

    Let me know if there’s something critical you’d like to add.

  • jcwconsult

    If you are in a car for about 15,000 miles a year, you will be involved in a fatal crash of a pedestrian, cyclist or a vehicle occupant about once in every 5,700 years. So if today you go out for an average length of driving, there is about one chance in two million the fatal crash will happen today for you. We do not have an auto safety crisis in the USA.

    The reality is people live where they do, most won’t change for many reasons, and infrastructure must support their needs.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    Your “agree items”.
    1. OK
    2. For some people OK, for many NO.
    3. Motorists drive at the speeds they find safe and comfortable, NOT to the numbers painted on the signs – unless those numbers are at or close to the 85th percentile speed of free flowing traffic under good conditions, rounded to the nearest 5 mph interval. That is reality and it needs to be an axiom for engineers.
    4. In many cases, the negatives to engineer for lower actual speeds outweigh the positives. Cities are, of course, able to do the re-engineering if they accept the negatives.

    The “disagree items”.
    1) A fatality rate of 1.16 per 100 M VMT, over 75% safer than 50+ years ago, is a good number for our 3+ trillion VMT and the huge distances involved in our country. Could the number be improved? Sure, but not by for-profit enforcement and deliberately bad traffic engineering that is common today.
    2) That is the reality of where people live and the freedom to choose those locations.
    3) Improved bike/ped/transit works for only a modest percent of the commuters, shoppers, visitors, tourists, and commercial traffic. Congestion pricing is too regressive for lower income service workers with fixed work hours that require commuting at rush hours.
    4) If travel is optimized for most collector and arterial streets, that is the best we can do in most cities – and most drivers will accept that.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    After tonight, I will be off line for a trip.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Sincerely

    You’ve said before that the negatives of engineering streets for lower speeds are a) the risk that motorists will choose adjacent residential routes, b) potential loss of business, and c) congestion.

    We know from numerous studies that lowering speed limits and creating more transit- and bike/ped-friendly streets actually helps businesses and that reducing capacity improves congestion in most circumstances, so that leaves a) the risk that motorists might spill over onto adjacent roads. That could also easily be rectified by utilizing Barcelona-style superblocks that prevent through motor-vehicle traffic, a technique which has proven successful in Houten and other towns. Or engineers could simply employ traffic-calming measures on adjacent streets when (or before) they do the arterials.

    So what your hypothetical engineers must weigh is a litany of negatives that don’t actually exist versus the fundamental reality that slower traffic saves lives. I guess we can add where we each come down on that scale to the “disagree” column.

    That said, I’m glad we agree that intentionally bad traffic engineering is common today. Can you believe there are cities that still have 12-foot lanes?

  • Sincerely

    That’s some really twisted math you do there to get numbers you like.

  • jcwconsult

    Cities rarely spend the money to protect adjacent streets before or after and they may well be commercial streets – not primarily residential. The negative do exist and they do happen.

    Thanks for a good and rational debate, signing off for at least a couple of days.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    1.16 fatals per 100 M VMT = 1 fatal per 86,206,896 miles divided by 15,000/yr = a fatal every 5,747 years for any particular person x 365 days = a risk of one in 2,097,655 that it will happen in today’s driving/riding. It is simple math and statistics.

    The obvious point is any one person’s trip on any one day has risks so small that the theoretical chance they will be in a tragedy that day is so tiny as to round to zero by any statistical method. That is why most drivers pay attention and try to drive responsibly but do NOT have irrational fears anything bad will happen on any particular day – because it won’t. Bye for now.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Sincerely

    That was my point. You’re abusing statistics to downplay the likelihood of death. The reality, as we’ve discussed before, is that motor vehicles are a top-ten cause of death for every age group (and near or at the top for children). Your lifetime risk of dying in a motor vehicle collision is beat out only by such stalwarts as cancer, heart disease, and suicide.

    The risk that you’ll die *today* from heart disease is quite small, but that hardly means you have no reason for concern (especially if you spend a lot of sedentary time in an automobile).

    You should stop using that meaningless statistic. You’re not convincing anyone and the methodology is embarrassing.

  • Sincerely

    It does seem likely that significant traffic could be diverted by streets engineered for safety, but are there any studies that have found such diversions lead to more deaths? I haven’t tracked down evidence.

    I suppose even if that turned out to be the case, it would just be more evidence that automobiles are incompatible with cities.

  • jcwconsult

    I think you missed the reason to look at statistics like this. Very few people do the math that way, but virtually everyone knows that the chances they will be in an accident today with a serious injury or fatality is essentially zero. People will not arbitrarily change their driving speeds or other habits on the one in several hundred thousand or one in a million chance this will be THE day that something really bad happens. It is not realistic to expect that sort of super-conservative driving style when for thousands of days it has not been necessary for them to be safe for themselves and everyone around them.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    To understand if diversion caused problems, it is necessary to study a grid of main and minor streets for several years before and after. That is almost never done. I tried hard to get some council members to get the data surrounding a couple of road diets, but failed to get interest or understanding.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Sincerely

    The reason to look at “statistics” like this is to justify not addressing a primary cause of accidental death.

    It’s not “super-conservative” to expect people to drive safely. If motorists cannot do that, then we need to reconsider where motorists are allowed to operate.

  • jcwconsult

    I will try once more to get understanding of WHY most people drive the way they do. If citizens and planners do not clearly understand the why, their plans are almost certain to be faulty.

    A 4/5 lane arterial has an 85th percentile speed of 41 mph and a 50th percentile of 36 mph. This means the Pace, the 10 mph band with the most vehicles (what the layman sees as “what everybody else is doing which produces the fewest conflicts”) will almost always be 32 to 41 mph or 31 to 40, or 33 to 42. It will typically have about 70-75% of the total vehicles under good conditions. Up to 15% will be at 42 mph or higher and most of those will be in the next 5 mph interval from 42 to 46 mph. About 15% will be at 31 or 30 mph or lower – below the bottom of the Pace. Only a tiny percentage will be at 25 or lower because that is far below the normal flow and those few cars become moving traffic hazards that almost everyone else will pass or tailgate waiting for a chance to pass.

    The lowest predictable crash rate will happen if the road is posted at 40 to match the actual 85th percentile speed. If posted at 30, it is unlikely to have much more than 10% in compliance and if posted at 25 the compliance rate will be in single digits.

    A very high percentage of the drivers will know the road very well as part of their normal travel routes and will have safely driven it in the Pace hundreds or thousands of times. They will find no logical reason to drive at 25 or below on the one in several hundred thousand or million chances that TODAY driving in the pace which is normally the safest range of actual travel speeds will mean being part of a crash with a serious injury or fatality of a pedestrian, cyclist or vehicle occupant.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Sincerely

    We haven’t been talking about lowering posted speed limits, we’ve been talking about engineering roads so drivers will comply with the law — since, as you say, motorists can’t be relied upon to maintain legal speeds established to reduce the risk of fatality.

    Narrowing lanes (when done during regular restriping) and changing signal timings can be done very cheaply. Unfortunately, many cities pursue the opposite strategy of optimizing signals for vehicle speed rather than safety, and people who care more about their own convenience than human lives often advocate for wider lanes instead of narrower. When done right, adding pedestrian, bicycling, and transit improvements can result in lowering motorist speed to safer levels as well.

  • jcwconsult

    Engineers must balance traffic volumes & flows with safety to support commerce, prevent gridlock, and reduce diversion. The final decisions are usually not optimum for either goal.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Sincerely

    Luckily traffic engineers in this century have figured out that the same decisions that reduce congestion, prevent gridlock, and support commerce are also often the choices that improve safety and provide residents with real transportation options. Cars are the least efficient use of scarce urban space and despite the conjecture of automobile boosters in the 1950s they’re the worst for economies.

  • jcwconsult

    Untrue for communities with high proportions of out of town commuters, shoppers, visitors, tourists, & commercial vehicles.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Sincerely

    Citation, please.

  • jcwconsult

    Ann Arbor with about 120,000 permanent population plus about 45,000 students and about 70,000 daily visitors by vehicles that arrive from outside the belt of the freeways. MANY cities with high housing costs so most service workers cannot afford to live in the places where they work.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Sincerely

    Your impression of your hometown, based on your skewed perspective, is not a citation.

    And are you really suggesting that Ann Arbor would fail if it narrowed lanes, changed signal timings, and prioritized pedestrian/bicyclist infrastructure? I’d bet dollars to donuts that the most economically successful areas of Ann Arbor (a city in which 12% of households already don’t have automobiles) are the segments with good pedestrian infrastructure and transit access. Those are likely the areas that disproportionately provide the tax revenue that support the choices of those car-dependents who live away from the city center. Because that’s how cities work.

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