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The Green Room: Crosswalk Confusion In Ann Arbor

The City of Ann Arbor’s Climate Action Plan says walking reduces overall greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion, while improving our health.  But, walking can be risky.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, apedestrian dies after being hit by a car every 1.6 hours in the United States.  Understandably, many people feel safer behind the wheel, than in front of it.  How can people get across the street safely?  There is considerable debate over best strategies.  In this installment of WEMU’s “Green Room” series, Barbara Lucas explores a tip that could be a complement to all. 

David Fair (DF):  The Michigan Uniform Traffic Code says cars must yield to pedestrians in crosswalks.  But many people don’t feel safe venturing into the street to trigger that stop.  In 2010, Ann Arbor passed an ordinance mandating that cars must still stop, even when a walker is still on the curb. But, if you are up on the curb, how are drivers to be certain you want to cross?  In this installment of WEMU’s “ The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas walks us through this Catch-22.

Police radio:  No, not the Jeep.  Just up to the white mini-van.

Barbara Lucas (BL):  There are over 150 mid-block crosswalks in Ann Arbor. I’m at one of them, on Pontiac Trail, a couple blocks from Ann Arbor’s STEAM elementary and middle school.  Kids attend here from all over town.  While parents know walking to school is great for exercise and reducing emissions, can they be assured every car will stop for their child?  Although state law requires drivers to stop for pedestrians in mid-block crosswalks, Ann Arbor pedestrians have died in marked crosswalks, including those with flashing lights.

Hunter Thurman:  So you have a poor person standing here waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting and cars just zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom.

BL: Hunter Thurman is a research study decoy.  He’s walking back and forth across the crosswalk.

Thurman:  So by my being here, and taking stats, that at least alerts them.

BL:  With a little help from your friends!

Lieutenant Bush [speaking to driver]:  Hi, I’m Lieutenant Bush from the Ann Arbor Police Department.  We’ve pulled you over…

Thurman:  Oh absolutely—that's the wind in my sails! Otherwise I'm just out here swimming for myself!  [Laughter].

BL: When drivers don’t stop for the decoy, police pull them over, and give them a friendly warning, with education.

Lt Bush:  …stop and yield.  It’s our state law, along with our local ordinance.  So if you see someone at or in the crosswalk, you need to stop and yield. 

Driver: There's one there by that school, and I always forget that.

Lt Bush:  Absolutely.  So this is just a reminder…

BL:  Phase 2 of the study consists of actual tickets, and feedback signs—updated continually with the current yielding rates.  This is all part of a “High Visibility Enforcement” study being performed by Dr. Ron Van Houten from Western Michigan University. His team had success using these methods to increase yielding rates in Gainesville, Florida. 

Dr. Ron Van Houten:  We did the four-year follow up and found not only was it maintained, it had climbed up into the 80’s, the high 80s. So we hit the tipping point!

BL: He says once you get a critical mass of drivers yielding, imitation takes over and enforcement is less necessary.  They’re trying to reach the tipping point in Ann Arbor, too.  He recommends other strategies to complement enforcement.  For instance, he likes the yellow in-road signs that say: “Local Law:  Stop for pedestrian within crosswalk.”

Van Houten:  We get much higher yielding. In fact as high as you can get for much more expensive countermeasures.

BL:  Looking through his past research studies, I find an even cheaper countermeasure that might complement efforts here.  And it requires no installation: the human hand.  Van Houten’s data show when pedestrians hold their hand up facing cars, it can greatly increase the likelihood the driver will yield.  He calls it a hand prompt.

Van Houten:  So we think, yes, indicate clearly what you want, and then wave thanks.

BL: Surprisingly, some sites showed nearly an 800% increase!

Van Houten:  Drivers, once you start communicating with them, they're willing participants in your safety and making things work.

BL:   Hmm… sounds self-evident, but I don’t see people doing it around here.  So I try it, at numerous crosswalks in Ann Arbor.  I only raise my hand to cars that have plenty of time to stop, and it works! Intuitively, I wave back in thanks.  Van Houten says waving thanks probably increases the likelihood drivers will yield for pedestrians again.

Van Houten:  So I think it is important to show a sense of community. We work with each other. Courtesy promotes safety.  

BL: But there are also many drivers that seem oblivious to me, no matter how politely I’m holding my hand up.  If I step into the road as I’m doing it, it sometimes helps.  But when cars are going at speeds that could kill me, that doesn’t feel safe.

State Representative Adam Zemke:  The goal is to keep people out of the street while they are waiting, absolutely.

BL: Representative Adam Zemke of Ann Arbor is crafting legislation that would make crosswalk markings and signage uniform throughout the state.   But how would it handle the burning question: should pedestrians be “within the crosswalk” or “on the curb,” before drivers must stop?  Representative Zemke suggests a combination.  He says uniform crosswalk markings can include the curb.

Rep. Zemke:  The goal behind any of any of these changes is to reduce confusion.

BL:  Speaking of confusion, perhaps drivers whizzing by me and my hand just don’t get what I’m doing. In Canada, some cities post signs to clarify.  The signs have a stick figure pointing to the opposite curb, and the words, “Point, Pause and Proceed.”  In some parts of the world, hand prompts are taught routinely in the schools.

Tim Nagae:  Arigatou gozaimasu, which means thank-you, to the driver.

BL:  Ann Arborite Tim Nagae says Japanese students are taught to raise their hand high as they cross the street, and to thank the drivers when they do stop.  He says it works.

Nagae:  The pedestrian is more noticeable, visually.

BL: Jeong Sheop Shin says schoolkids in South Korea are also taught this safety trick.   

Jeong Sheop Shin: The children wave all the time, while, they are walking on the crosswalk.  They raise their hand until they cross that street. 

BL:  Shin says adults can find it useful as well.

Shin: If drivers cannot find me, then a little bit dangerous.  So I want to let her notice myself.

BL: Shin says it’s especially useful at multi-lane crossings.  As Ann Arbor knows, those can be really dangerous. Van Houten points out that at multi-lane crosswalks, cars should stop far back, so all the other drivers can clearly see the pedestrian.  And pedestrians should be sure to stop in front of the first car, and look before proceeding.

Van Houten:  And then if it's clear then you can continue crossing. Nobody teaches children or anyone else, adults, that that's how they should cross a multi-lane roads if someone yields close to the crosswalk.

BL:  I did find one U.S. city trying to get the use of hand prompts to catch on.  “Wave, Watch, and Walk.”  That’s the campaign in Madison, Wisconsin.

Arthur Ross:  I think if we want to get out of the cycle we need to be teaching kids proper technique for crossing streets.

BL:  Pedestrian-Bicycle Safety Coordinator Arthur Ross, feels education on being an active participant should start young.

Ross:  You know we teach kids not to cross the street unless there's a gap in traffic or you could drive a Semi through.  We teach kids to be completely passive.  And then, you know, we put them in Drivers’ Ed and we try to teach them to yield to pedestrians, but it's ingrained in their head when they see that pedestrian, that pedestrian what they're supposed to do is wait for the car to go.

BL: He says if you prefer to wait than wave, then where you wait, matters.

Ross:  If you're gonna wait for a gap in traffic, then wait far enough back so that nobody's going to stop for you!

BL:  The goal is communication—to reduce confusion, and to promote a cultural shift—so reliance on police reminders can eventually be reduced.

Ross:  The message is not, you know, you better yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk or you're going to get a ticket. But yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks—we do that because it's the right thing to do.  Because those are our community standards. 

Lt. Bush:  We just want you to stop and yield for your safety, the safety of the pedestrians, and the safety of our community.  So thank-you so much, we appreciate your help in keeping our city safe. 

Driver:  Thank-you.

BL:   Dr. Van Houten’s study is still in progress.  They’ve found Ann Arbor’s yielding rates are on the rise, approaching 50% so far.  The study complements other city efforts:  The former Pedestrian Safety Task Force, and the new Transportation Commission, are looking at driving speeds, poor crosswalk lighting, distracted driving, and more.  Perhaps the hand prompt can be yet another tool for the toolbox, to help children and their parents be assured drivers will yield.

BL:  In “The Green Room,” I’m Barbara Lucas, 89 One, WEMU News.  



Gainesville Florida intervention report: “High-Visibility Enforcement on Driver Compliance With Pedestrian Right-of-Way Laws” Van Houten et al., 2013.

“Effects of Pedestrian Prompts on Motorist Yielding at Crosswalks” by Crowley-Koch and Van Houten, 2011.
“Increasing Driver Yielding and Pedestrian Signaling with Prompting, Feedback, and Enforcement,” Van Houten, Malenfant, and Rolider, 1985.

St. Albert Canada Point, Pause, Proceed Campaign

Madison Wisconsin’s Wave, Watch, Walk Campaign

City of Ann Arbor Pedestrian Safety and Access Task Force

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Pedestrian Safety

Alberta Canada Driver’s Guide 2016, Section on Pedestrian Safety, Pg. 96
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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Barbara received a master's degree in Environmental Policy from the University of Michigan. She began her association with WEMU in 2003 as an intern with Washtenaw County, assisting with the weekly "Issues of the Environment" show. In 2003 she also began working in documentary film, and later established her own video production company.