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Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal
Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.
May 12, 1997
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Does Enforcement of Pedestrian Right-of-Way Laws Increase Driver Compliance?

In 1990, a stronger Washington State crosswalk law changed motorists' obligation to pedestrians who are attempting to cross at legal crosswalk sites. Previously, the law required motorists to yield to pedestrians. The new law requires motorists to stop for pedestrians attempting to cross at a crosswalk. With the new law, Seattle launched a public information campaign on pedestrian safety and established a new policy for enforcement of the strengthened pedestrian law.

These events set the stage for research on the effect of a safety campaign and increased enforcement on motorist compliance with crosswalk laws. Researchers John W. Britt and Abraham B. Bergman of Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center in Seattle and John Moffat of the Traffic Safety Commission in Olympia, Washington engaged the cooperative efforts of Harborview and the Seattle Police Department in pursuing this research. They published the results of their evaluation of Seattle's efforts in Transportation Research Record 1485 (1995). The title of their report was "Law Enforcement, Pedestrian Safety, and Driver Compliance with Crosswalk Laws: Evaluation of a Four-Year Campaign in Seattle." A summary of their report follows.

BACKGROUND

U.S. statistics for 1993 reported 5,500 pedestrian deaths and thousands of injuries from pedestrian-motor vehicle collisions. Although increased law enforcement is frequently recommended to make the streets safer for pedestrians, these authors found little information on the effect of law enforcement on motorists' compliance with pedestrian laws. The intention of the Seattle Police Department to strengthen enforcement in response to the 1990 change in the pedestrian law gave researchers a unique opportunity to study the results of increased enforcement when combined with a publicity campaign.

The media campaign made the public aware of changes in the law. In addition, Seattle newspapers asked people to provide information on dangerous intersections. Responding to letters from residents, the Engineering Department installed warning signs and posters, posted signs on buses, and distributed pamphlets and posters describing the new law, the increased law enforcement, and the seriousness of the pedestrian-vehicle collision problem.

Also in response to the 1990 change in the pedestrian law, Seattle police changed their policy toward pedestrian violations. Previously they had emphasized enforcement of jaywalking laws. "The new policy," according to the authors, "encouraged traffic officers to issue at least two citations to driver violators for every ticket issued to a jaywalker." The result was an increase in citations to motorists committing pedestrian law violations and a decrease in jaywalking citations.

From 1990 to 1994, the Seattle Police Department carried out four separate enforcement efforts. They shared five design features:

  • Officer presence in designated areas of the city increased--with the goal of citing drivers who violated the new pedestrian crosswalk law.
  • Each campaign had a time line; time lines varied from three weeks to more than a year.
  • The Department identified "sentinel intersections" within designated areas. For these intersections, researchers measured compliance with the new pedestrian law. Data on traffic volumes and posted speed limits were also gathered for these intersections.
  • Before increased enforcement began, researchers collected baseline measures of motorist compliance with the new pedestrian law at sentinel intersections.
  • After enforcement efforts stopped, researchers gathered data on compliance with the pedestrian law at these same intersections.

DESIGN OF STUDY

Researchers chose crosswalks at uncontrolled intersections as specific target locations for their study. Such crosswalks were a focus of law enforcement efforts and provided sites where researchers could easily measure motorist responses to pedestrians before and after enforcement and publicity campaign efforts. Moreover, of Washington's 1,900 pedestrian injuries in 1992, more than 800 happened at intersections.

Researchers carefully chose sentinel intersections and controlled research conditions. Traffic engineers excluded intersections with short sight distances. To alleviate differences caused by variations in traffic volume near and during weekends, researchers worked only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. All counts were taken in clear weather and at the same time of day.

To evaluate the success of increased enforcement efforts, researchers observed the willingness of drivers to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks before and after enforcement and publicity campaigns. At sentinel crosswalks, a "mock" pedestrian nearing and entering the crosswalk attempted to make eye contact with approaching motorists. Another researcher, remaining out of sight of motorists, tabulated the number of drivers who stopped to allow the pedestrian to cross. Motorists approaching from the pedestrian's left were counted until the pedestrian neared the middle of the roadway. When the pedestrian approached the midpoint of the roadway, the researcher recorded compliance for motorists on the pedestrian's right. The compliance of the former (motorists approaching on the left) was recorded as "near- side compliance," while the compliance of the latter (approaching on the right when the pedestrian was already in the middle of the roadway) was recorded as "far-side compliance."

All mock pedestrians were white, male adults. This avoided variability that might result from confronting motorists with children, the disabled, women, joggers, older adults, or other variations in pedestrians that might change how a motorist would respond.

The study followed guidelines as to which motorists were considered to have complied and which were not. The researchers did not count those motorists who were judged to be too close to the intersection to be expected to stop. Moreover, if a motorist "slowed dramatically, sometimes to a crawl" and allowed the pedestrian to cross, this was recorded as compliance--even when the motorist never came to a complete stop.

The Seattle Police Department and the Harborview Injury Prevention Research Center worked together to select target areas of the city for this research. Crosswalk decisions involved city traffic engineers with Harborview. Sentinel intersections had no steep grades or curves that might affect reaction times. The group of sentinel crosswalks included two-lane and four-lane roadways with marked and unmarked crosswalks. Some midblock crosswalks were also chosen. In all cases, crosswalks with heavy traffic volumes were preferred.

RESULTS

The authors reported research results for each of the four enforcement and publicity campaigns.

Campaign 1: Citywide Focus, Summer 1990 to Fall 1991

In this first campaign after passage of the new pedestrian law, increased enforcement yielded 3,600 citations during more than a year of emphasis on citywide publicity and enforcement. Enforcement officers did not know which intersections were specifically involved in the researchers' counts. The sentinel crosswalks in these studies all had some type of pedestrian advance warning for motorists: painted stripes, an overhead beacon, or both.

Before-and-after counts showed that overall motorist compliance with pedestrian laws did not change. The authors concluded "that although enforcement and other public information efforts may have increased the awareness of drivers about pedestrian safety issues, there is no reason to believe that this campaign improved the safety of people trying to cross the street." Both before and after the campaign, 81 of 100 motorists failed to stop for the mock pedestrian attempting to enter a crosswalk.

Campaign 2: Neighborhood Focus, September 1992 to January 1993

Enforcement and publicity here focused on five city neighborhoods, and twelve sentinel intersections were studied. In this shorter campaign, law officers were again not aware of the crosswalks being studied.

Results suggested that a limited campaign focusing on specific neighborhoods might have more effect than a broad, citywide campaign. Although this effort was of much shorter duration that the first campaign, "modest improvements in compliance were seen, especially in the near-side lanes of marked crosswalks." Even after the campaign, drivers were nine times more likely to stop for a pedestrian in the near side of a marked crosswalk than for a pedestrian in the near side of an unmarked crosswalk. Moreover, even after the campaign, "the majority of vehicles were still not stopping for the pedestrian."

Campaign 3: Neighborhood Focus, July to October 1993

This short campaign again focused on twelve intersections in five neighborhoods. In this effort, however, all sentinel crosswalks were marked and only the compliance of near-side motorists was recorded. Another difference was the availability of citation data. This data allowed researchers to see that 90 percent of the citations originated from two of the five neighborhoods. Therefore, results were measured only for the two areas receiving significantly increased enforcement. Results from the two areas differed.

The first area, a downtown business corridor with heavy commuter traffic, actually showed a decrease in compliance after the campaign. In this area of high traffic volumes and sporadic pedestrian crossings, results suggested "that even intense enforcement conducted in downtown commuter corridors may not result in a safety benefit for the pedestrian." Enforcement officers were not aware which crosswalk was identified for before-and-after counts; but, as it turned out, none of the citations issued in this area were issued at the sentinel intersection.

By contrast, a significant increase in motorist compliance with pedestrian laws occurred in the second neighborhood, an area made up of multifamily housing units and small retail businesses. While pedestrian traffic was heavy, vehicle volumes were less than in the first area. The authors theorized law enforcement reminders might be more effective where more people live or where motorists more frequently encounter pedestrians. Moreover, 78 percent of the citations issued in this area were to motorists at the sentinel intersection. Perhaps such concentrated enforcement at one location, however unintentional, skewed the results.

Campaign 4: Intersection-Specific Enforcement, May to June 1994

For this campaign, enforcement officers knew the two sentinel crosswalks. Both were on four-lane roadways with 30- mile-per-hour speed limits. Both had painted crosswalks, overhead flashing beacons, and advance pedestrian warning signs. During the campaign, officers were to provide enforcement each of the five weekdays throughout the highest traffic volumes.

Because officers were sometimes called away to other duties, Intersection 1 motorists had more days with officers present and received more enforcement. Surprisingly, however, results of the before-and-after study showed Intersection 2 with more increase in compliance. More surprisingly, Intersection 1 was the same intersection that showed a dramatic increase in compliance during Campaign 3 in Neighborhood 2. The authors concluded:

The contradictory results of Campaign 4 indicate that success may vary markedly from intersection to intersection and suggest that, despite heavy ticketing, other environmental and perhaps behavioral factors are more salient to drivers than enforcement concerns. . . . The results also suggest that the threshold level of ticketing necessary to achieve even transient changes in driver behavior is quite high.

Limitations

While researchers attempted to control variables for this study, they cautioned factors may have added to variability in the results. Some of these factors included:

  • The distance judged to be too little to reasonably expect a motorist to stop for the pedestrian was based on averages (e.g., average driver reaction time and adequate brakes and tires) and assumed travel at the posted speed limit on dry, flat pavement. Such conditions did not, of course, always exist.
  • Researchers made no actual counts of pedestrian volumes at sentinel intersections.
  • The study did not differentiate between compliance rates for single vehicles and vehicles moving in groups.
  • Enforcement intensity and distribution varied.
  • While posted speed limits only varied from 30 to 35 miles, actual speeds traveled varied considerably and were not measured.

Conclusion

The research produced one overall conclusion:

The authors have been unable to demonstrate that law enforcement efforts directed at motorist violators of crosswalk laws significantly or consistently increase drivers' willingness to stop for pedestrians. It appears that even with a high degree of commitment on the part of law enforcement, the expectations from such programs should remain modest.

Rather than let this conclusion discourage law enforcement agencies from becoming involved in pedestrian safety programs, the authors encouraged further research and continuing campaigns. The goal is to learn what are the most effective ways of increasing pedestrian safety through enforcement and publicity campaigns.

Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.


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