An increase in the number of people killed while walking on Wisconsin roads has the state set to surpass the 2013 pedestrian fatality total, before the Labor Day holiday and the unofficial start of walk-to-school season.
Why are the streets more dangerous for people walking? What can we do to bring the fatality and injury numbers down?
Robert Schneider, an assistant professor and traffic safety researcher in the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee Department of Urban Planning, found potential answers in a three-year analysis of 8,222 crashes in which automobiles hit people walking or biking statewide. Schneider and UWM student Joseph Stefanich reviewed the crashes reported to police covering 2011 through 2013 for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Safety.
In that time span, 152 people walking and 33 people on bikes – children, grandparents, brothers and sisters – died after being hit by motor vehicles.
Through August of this year, the pedestrian death toll reported to the WisDOT Bureau of Transportation Safety stood at 34, one short of the total for all of 2013. Wisconsin is on pace to have 50 people die while walking on streets this year. The five-year average is 45.
Schneider found a number of frequent factors, including intoxication (either the driver or person walking), high-speed roadways and drivers who routinely fail to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks.
- At an intersection or crosswalk where traffic is not controlled by traffic control signals or by a traffic officer, the operator of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian, or to a person riding a bicycle or electric personal assistive mobility device in a manner which is consistent with the safe use of the crosswalk by pedestrians, who is crossing the highway within a marked or unmarked crosswalk
- No pedestrian, bicyclist, or rider of an electric personal assistive mobility device shall suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk, run, or ride into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is difficult for the operator of the vehicle to yield.
- Whenever any vehicle is stopped at an intersection or crosswalk to permit a pedestrian, bicyclist, or rider of an electric personal assistive mobility device to cross the roadway, the operator of any other vehicle approaching from the rear shall not overtake and pass the stopped vehicle.
In-depth analysis suggested that motorists failing to yield killed more than 40 people in crosswalks in the three-year span, and driver errors accounted for 65 percent of the deaths in crosswalks at intersections. Wisconsin law requires people in motor vehicles to slow or stop for people in crosswalks, marked or unmarked. That means as soon as someone has a foot off the curb, we have to yield to them if we have time to stop.
Based on the law and the safe stopping and thinking distance, when we are driving a motor vehicle, we should look for people crossing and slow to yield or stop if they are about half a block away. If we see people standing just off the curb in a crosswalk (marked or unmarked) we are required to allow them to cross the street. Even if someone does suddenly leave the curb, the burden to stop remains on the motorist. That said, while people walking have the right to expect motor vehicles to stop, we don’t want to be dead right, so be careful.
A good strategy is to look for a safe gap, then leave the curb and walk assertively, but keep an eye on approaching motor vehicle traffic in case they are not going to yield. Some pedestrian rights advocates suggest waiving politely to the drivers in the approaching cars to make clear you expect then to yield and you thank them for it.
Remember that most children 10 years old and younger a cognitively unable to judge speed and distance, so they may wait until cars come to a complete stop before they feel safe crossing. Other children may cross too soon, which is why speed limits in school zones are much slower when children are present.
The failure-to-yield scenario matches Schneider’s earlier work that suggests motorists in Wisconsin generally ignore the state law requiring them to yield to pedestrians, especially when traveling straight.
“What we saw was that many of the pedestrian crashes, the fatalities in particular, took place where pedestrians had a right to cross the road and the driver should have yielded,” Schneider said. “Many drivers may be in a mind-set that they only have to think about stopping at red lights or stop signs.”
To make Wisconsin streets safer, Schneider advocates reducing speeds, adding median islands and curb extensions to reduce crossing distances at crosswalks, educating drivers and pedestrians about safe road use, and enforcing the yield-to-pedestrian laws.
Many of those lessons and safety tips for people walking, people on bikes and people driving cars are shared through the Bureau of Traffic Safety Share & Be Aware Program. Free educational guides, state laws, safety tips and rules of the road can be found here.
To listen to more of Schneider’s views on how to keep people safe while walking, click here.