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Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal
Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.
May 12, 1997
TranSafety, Inc.
(360) 683-6276
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New York Court Will Reconsider Allocation of Fault to Pedestrian Hit in Unmarked Crosswalk
Survey Measures Knowledge of Pedestrian Laws and Traffic Control Devices
Court to Decide if New Mexico Highway Department Should Have Foreseen Thirteen-Year-Old's Behavior in Crossing Urban Freeway
Does Enforcement of Pedestrian Right-of-Way Laws Increase Driver Compliance?

Highway Safety Publications Catalog. Articles on Road Engineering, Road Maintenance & Management, and Injury Litigation. Information and consulting for the Automobile and Road User, as well as for law professionals in accident investigations.
TranSafety's free consumer journal for automobile and road users, three subscription journals on road maintenance, engineering, and injury litigation, and highway safety publications catalog. See our free consumer journal for automobile and road users, three subscription journals on road maintenance, engineering, and injury litigation, and a highway safety publications catalog.

Survey Measures Knowledge of Pedestrian Laws and Traffic Control Devices

In view of the 5,546 pedestrian fatalities and approximately 94,000 pedestrian injuries in 1992, John E. Tidwell and Devin P. Doyle of the Transportation Center in Knoxville, Tennessee decided to focus research efforts on how much drivers and pedestrians know about pedestrian traffic control devices and pedestrian laws. They reported on the results of their survey in Transportation Research Record 1502 (1995), calling the article "Driver and Pedestrian Comprehension of Pedestrian Law and Traffic Control Devices." This article summarizes their report.

Defining the Issue

Of traffic fatalities in 1992, 14.1 percent were pedestrians. However, only 2.8 percent of traffic-related injuries were pedestrians. This comparison illustrates the level of danger to pedestrians involved in collisions with vehicles; pedestrians are highly vulnerable.

The authors found earlier pedestrian research that analyzed pedestrian collision data and that considered the effectiveness of various pedestrian signs and signals. However, although the Pedestrian Safety Committee of the Transportation Research Board had identified "pedestrian comprehension of traffic control devices" as a priority issue, little or no research existed in this area.

Tidwell and Doyle looked at two government documents for information on pedestrian traffic control devices and laws. The first, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), includes guidelines from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for installation of such devices across the country. The second, which serves as a guide for state-level adoption of traffic codes and laws, is the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC), produced by the National Committee of Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances. The Highway Safety Act of 1966 required each state to develop and implement "a program to achieve uniformity of traffic codes and laws."

Two pedestrian age groups have comparatively high injury and fatality rates: young pedestrians (under the age of 16) and older pedestrians (over 65). Finding it beyond the scope of this research to study and evaluate the needs of young pedestrians, the researchers collected information only from licensed drivers. They placed special emphasis on the older population.

Survey Objectives and Design

Using two one-page questionnaires, the researchers sought: "(a) to identify specific traffic control devices that may be misunderstood by a number of respondents and (b) to evaluate the knowledge or awareness of various issues and traffic laws related to pedestrian safety." Their purpose "was to collect information that could be applied on a national level for the development of safety planning and programming projects."

After an in-depth review of related literature and following consultation with several transportation safety groups, the research team drafted a 25-item questionnaire. With input from the safety groups and each state's department of motor vehicles (DMV), the team decided to use a shorter and less complex survey. To accomplish this, they developed two surveys. While demographic questions on the two forms were identical, each survey addressed pedestrian safety issues through unique questions. Each respondent completed only one of the two forms. Survey forms were pre-tested at two sites, and researchers changed questions that caused difficulties for interviewed respondents.

Surveys collected four types of information:

  1. Demographic characteristics: both forms asked respondents to provide gender, age, pedestrian collision experience, and safety education information;
  2. Problem assessment: questions covered the education of young pedestrians, alcohol use by pedestrians, and the magnitude of the pedestrian-vehicle collision problem;
  3. Knowledge of pedestrian laws: questions related to pedestrian right-of-way, state pedestrian laws, and laws specifically addressing pedestrians walking on or along roadways;
  4. Knowledge of pedestrian traffic control devices: questions tested the respondent's understanding of pedestrian signs in school zones, pedestrian signals, and advance pedestrian crossing signs.
Data Collection and Analysis

To gather responses from a diverse group of drivers and pedestrians, surveys were distributed in 48 states (excluding Alaska and Hawaii) at two locations. The first location, driver's license examination stations, yielded a cross-section of drivers and walkers. The second location, 55 Alive drivers' training courses offered by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), specifically garnered responses from the older population.

Each state involved in the survey identified two driver's license examination sites for survey distribution. Since more than 75 percent of pedestrian fatalities and injuries happen in urban areas, researchers asked the states to designate at least one site in the state's largest city. The AARP selected the 55 Alive safety course groups to receive the questionnaire.

The site-identification process yielded seventy-seven locations in rural and urban areas. Site populations ranged from 3,500 to 8.8 million and included such major metropolitan areas as New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, and Detroit.

Researchers mailed questionnaires to the selected sites in the late summer of 1992. From September 1992 to April 1993, the driver's license examination stations returned 3,595 completed surveys and the 55 Alive courses returned 1,231 completed surveys.

Grouping the data by responses to demographic questions, the researchers created five categories according to the respondent's:

Experience [with] or knowledge of pedestrian collision[s],
Pedestrian safety education,
Gender . . . ,
Age . . . , and
Knowledge of the driver's manual.


In scoring the surveys, researchers identified correct answers by interviewing DMV personnel, referring to state codes and statutes, and reviewing the MUTCD and the UVC.

Survey results were divided into the five categories above based on responses to demographic questions. The research aimed to learn if any of the identified groups had "a misunderstanding of pedestrian laws and traffic control devices." The analysis determined each demographic group's level of understanding of three pedestrian issues and problems: assessment of pedestrian issues, knowledge of the UVC provisions, and knowledge of the MUTCD provisions.

Respondents' Assessment of Pedestrian Issues

Survey questions related to pedestrian education for children revealed that most respondents believed schools are teaching children about pedestrian safety. Asked what groups they felt should take responsibility for pedestrian safety education of children, the majority identified the home and the schools.

On general issues, nearly one-third of the respondents underestimated the percentage pedestrians represent of annual traffic-related fatalities. While the actual figure ranges between 15 and 20 percent, many respondents estimated 10 percent or less.

When asked about the causes of pedestrian-vehicle collisions, by an "overwhelming margin" respondents blamed simple pedestrian or driver error. They also cited alcohol involvement. The authors, however, theorized that "the respondents may not be aware of the extent of [the alcohol-involvement] problem." In fact, 35 to 39 percent of pedestrian fatalities during the past ten years have involved pedestrians with blood-alcohol levels of 0.10 or higher. In most states, a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.10 is classified as legally intoxicated.

Respondents' perceptions of comparative danger at different locations coincided with statistical data for 1992. For all age groups except those over 65, pedestrian injuries and fatalities are most common at non-intersection locations. Respondents were aware of this, with greater awareness for those 50 years old and older and for those who recently reviewed their driver's license manual.

The majority of respondents said they felt wearing white clothing while walking along the roadway at night would make them visible to motorists from a safe distance. Respondents from AARP sample groups were more likely to believe this than the examination center respondents, and this could be a dangerous perception. Research shows that white clothing appears to provide sufficient visibility for a slow-moving motorist to see a pedestrian in time to stop; however, at speeds over 35 mph, white clothing may not prevent a pedestrian-vehicle collision. The authors described Blomberg, Hale, and Pruesser's research showing:

...that white clothing worn at night was detectable from a distance of only 68.3 m (224 ft). The average stopping distance for an automobile traveling 56.3 km/hr (34.9 mph) is 68.6 m (225 ft); for higher speeds this distance increases significantly.

Questions Related to the UVC

The seven questions related to issues covered by the UVC attempted to determine respondents' understanding of state vehicle and traffic laws.

A significant majority of respondents correctly believed that "in the city you must cross at a signal or crosswalk." In most states, pedestrians are only to cross at marked crosswalks between adjacent operating signalized intersections. In the city, where most intersections have signals, pedestrians may only cross at intersections.

About 69 percent of respondents felt the law required motorists to stop or slow to allow a pedestrian on the curb at a marked crosswalk to cross. While the UVC requires motorists to yield right-of-way to pedestrians already crossing within a crosswalk, it does not require that motorists yield when the pedestrian is still on the curb. The authors concluded this misconception could be dangerous to pedestrians.

Survey respondents did correctly assume that turning vehicles must yield right-of-way to pedestrians lawfully in crosswalks at intersections. This perception is correct both for right-turning vehicles on a red light and for left-turning vehicles on a green light.

Two survey questions related to pedestrian responsibilities while walking on or along roadways. In all states but Rhode Island, joggers are in the pedestrian group that "shall not walk on or along the roadway when a sidewalk is provided and when its use is practicable." In Rhode Island, joggers may run on the road surface even where there is a sidewalk; however, if they begin walking, they must move to the sidewalk. Of AARP respondents, 39 percent felt joggers could run on the roadway even where sidewalks were present; and 46 percent of respondents from license examination centers shared this misconception. Smaller percentages of respondents incorrectly indicated that pedestrians could walk on the right side of the roadway, with their backs to traffic, when no sidewalk was present. Pedestrians are required to face oncoming traffic and walk on the left side of the roadway where there is no sidewalk. This requirement exists to place the pedestrian in a position to both see and hear approaching traffic.

Questions Related to the MUTCD

The seven questions related to the MUTCD attempted to determine respondents' understanding of the traffic control devices that aid in the safe interaction of motorists and pedestrians. In the opinion of the authors, "If the meanings of these devices are misunderstood, traffic engineers are not properly serving the community."

Nearly half of the respondents incorrectly believed flashing DON'T WALK or upraised-palm signals mean pedestrians should return to the curb if they have just begun to cross at an intersection. To the contrary, these signals mean "that pedestrians shall not begin crossing, but that pedestrians already crossing should continue to a sidewalk or raised median."

Most respondents knew that a WALK signal will generally not appear immediately after they push the button to activate the pedestrian-crossing signal. Respondents appeared to understand that signals complete their cycle before providing clearance to pedestrians.

Just under half of respondents incorrectly assumed the presence of a steady WALK symbol or message meant they could cross safely without consideration for conflicts with traffic that also had the right-of-way. Since motorists turning right on a red light or left on a green may legally traverse a crosswalk where pedestrians have a steady WALK message, the authors felt this misconception might give pedestrians a "false sense of security." Pedestrians have the right-of-way in these situations, but they must proceed with caution and watch for traffic.

When presented with signs that show crossing pedestrians or crossing school children and display marked pedestrian crosswalk lines, a majority of all respondents incorrectly identified these signs as showing that a pedestrian crosswalk or school crossing was 200 feet ahead. To the contrary, these signs, when they display the crosswalk lines, identify the actual location of a crosswalk. To show a crosswalk 200 feet ahead, the same signs without crossing lines are used. Respondents did not seem aware of this difference.

Finally, respondents replied with true or false to: "When you are driving in a school speed zone, you may resume your speed as soon as you can see the 'END SCHOOL ZONE' sign." Of respondents from license examination stations, 66 percent answered true, while 74 percent of AARP respondents answered true. The MUTCD "states that this sign or a standard SPEED LIMIT sign shall be used at the precise location where speeds at the end of a school zone are to change." Therefore, motorists who resume their previous speed when they can see the END SCHOOL SIGN would be illegally increasing their speed too soon.


Based on conclusions drawn from respondents' misconceptions revealed by significant numbers of incorrect answers to some survey questions, researchers made three categories of recommendations: pedestrian safety programming, enforcement, and traffic engineering.

The research team recommended that pedestrian safety programs specifically include information covering all areas where the survey revealed a significant number of respondents misunderstood laws, signals, or signs related to pedestrians. Information to counteract dangerous misconceptions would be especially important.

In the area of law enforcement activities, the researchers felt drivers who do not appropriately yield right-of-way to pedestrians should receive citations. The same recommendation was made for pedestrians behaving unsafely.

Two recommendations applied to traffic engineering issues:

  • The current distinctive features between crossing signs and advance crossing signs should be evaluated, perhaps using heavier lines or different colors. The use of supplemental distance plates also may prove useful.
  • The use of informational signs indicating the meanings of the WALK and flashing DON'T WALK symbols at intersections should be considered.

Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.

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