Police Stings for Drivers Who Don't Yield in Crosswalks: Does It Really Work?

Last year, New Jersey cops were cracking down on jaywalkers. Now they're penalizing cars. Will switching tactics make a difference?

Image
Shutterstock

There were at least 56 very unhappy people in Fort Lee, New Jersey, last Friday, after a police sting operation resulted in a flurry of traffic tickets for drivers who failed to yield for pedestrians in crosswalks. The blitz, which is part of a more comprehensive effort to educate both pedestrians and drivers about their responsibility to follow the law, drew angry comments from motorists who were stopped and issued $230 tickets, according to NorthJersey.com.  

This surge in enforcement is just the latest attempt in Fort Lee – a municipality that bears the unfortunate burden of providing several shortcuts to and from the George Washington Bridge – to address pedestrian safety. Sixty-eight people got hit by drivers in Fort Lee last year, and four died. Twelve were struck through the first three months of this year. Last year at this time, the cops were cracking down on jaywalkers. Will switching tactics make a difference?

It sure will make a lot of people mad. Righteous outrage is the norm when police conduct pedestrian decoy stings, which they do around the country on a regular basis. Some drivers insist they don’t see the officers, which tells you something right there. Others say it’s just a revenue-generating scheme, or that pedestrians are the problem, not motorists. From NewJersey.com’s report:

“Pedestrians are idiots, especially in New Jersey,” said Julie Mendelowitz, of Hoboken, who vowed to contest her $230 ticket. “If someone jumps out into the walkway, what makes you think that that driver can stop in enough time to not strike that pedestrian and not get hit by the cars behind them? Are the pedestrians not endangering the drivers just as much? Where’s their ticket?”

Well, actually, pedestrians are not endangering the drivers just as much, and everyone involved knows it. That intimidating fact is exactly what drivers are counting on when they barrel through marked crossings. And when pedestrians are crossing in crosswalks – which is where the Fort Lee police are doing their thing – you, as a driver, are supposed to be watching out for them and traveling at a speed that will enable you to stop in time to avoid hitting someone.

The problem is that roads in much of the United States are engineered for speed. Straight, wide, free of any obstacles, the modern American thoroughfare sends drivers the clear message that this is their domain, over which they should reign undisputed. Bright yellow signs with silhouetted figures and white lines on the asphalt can’t begin to convince people behind the wheel of anything different, not to mention some rule from driver education that they forgot as soon as they got their licenses.

In this TV news segment showing an “investigation” into a recent crosswalk enforcement action in Orlando, Florida, you can see what the cops are up against here. As they walk out into four lanes of traffic on what looks like a suburban arterial road, some drivers just keep coming – in one case, almost striking the undercover officer who is crossing. "They have actually got a weapon in front of them that they are driving," Orange County Sheriff Sgt. Tony Molina said in the segment.

The drivers may be aware of the destructive potential of their vehicles, but many seem to think that just means everyone should get the heck out of their way. “I thought the guy was crazy for walking across like that," says one guy from behind the wheel, shaking his head.

Others, like one woman quoted in Fort Lee, go straight into full denial, insisting that the humans in front of them weren’t actually there. "I did not see him at all, which means he was not on the street," said Katie Graziano, of Weehawken. 

Do pedestrian decoy operations have any effect on attitudes like that? At least one study suggests that they might, if combined with a concerted educational approach. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis looked at a two-week-long Miami Beach "driver-yielding enforcement program," which included decoy pedestrians, feedback flyers, and written and verbal warnings. The article’s authors found that the program made a measurable difference in driver behavior:

Results indicated that the percentage of drivers yielding to pedestrians increased following the introduction of the enforcement program in each corridor and that these increases were sustained for a period of a year with minimal additional enforcement. The effects also generalized somewhat to untreated crosswalks in both corridors, as well as to crosswalks with traffic signals.

In other words, crosswalks can become safer places if municipalities are willing to do some hard work. That’s important because, as Emily Badger wrote last week, other research shows that many pedestrians are struck when they’re in crosswalks acting in accordance with the law – doing what is supposed to be the right thing.

Janna Chernetz, the New Jersey advocate at the nonprofit Tri State Transportation Campaign, says that her group sees pedestrian decoy operations as part of a bigger picture. “These programs are one tool in a toolkit,” she says. The others include education, as well as better infrastructure that sends a clear signal to motorists and pedestrians. One example is HAWK crosswalks (that stands for high-intensity activated crosswalks), which use an unusual cluster of lights to get a motorist’s attention when a pedestrian is entering the roadway. (You can watch a video demonstrating the HAWK here.)

But maybe we need to reconfigure space more radically to be able to truly see each other again. In a shared-space intersection like the one I wrote about last week in Poynton, U.K., one of the first effects is that people’s awareness of other road users changes dramatically. And the classic defense of “I just didn’t see him” becomes a lot harder to swallow.

Shutterstock: Iscatel/Shutterstock

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.