Do Drivers Discriminate Against Minorities at Crosswalks?

In an initial study, researchers found a large disparity. 

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One of the most blatant and insulting manifestations of racism in the days of Jim Crow was the expectation that a black person in the South would have to step off the sidewalk to allow a white person to pass. As documented in the book American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow, this was just one of many indignities and restrictions, some of them life-threatening, that African Americans had to endure as they used the basic transportation infrastructure of 19th and 20th century America. (You can read many more examples of transportation discrimination in the Jim Crow era on the Federal Highway Administration’s website.)

Jim Crow is in the past. But now a pilot study conducted by researchers in Portland, Oregon, suggests that black people may still be treated unequally by their fellow citizens when crossing the street. The findings are preliminary, but troubling.

The researchers looked at whether drivers treated pedestrians waiting to cross in a crosswalk differently according to their race. Their findings: black men in the study were passed by almost twice as many cars as white men before a driver would yield, and their wait times for safe crossing were nearly a third longer.

The study was carried out by researchers from Portland State University and the University of Arizona. Kimberly Kahn, of PSU, is a social psychologist who has studied contemporary forms of racial bias across many types of institutions and societal structures, including education and the justice system. She was working with PSU’s Tara Goddard, a doctoral student, and Arizona’s Arlie Adkins, who both approached the issue from the transportation side.

The three had been discussing how implicit racial, ethnic, gender, and class biases affect the way people interact on streets, as well as conflicts between users of different modes. That led to designing a study that would look specifically at racial bias.

“When do different individuals feel conflict over shared space?” says Kahn. “We started to think about how that might apply to something as simple as taking the action of stopping at a crosswalk.”

For the field study, they selected six men in their 20s, three black and three white, all of similar height and build. The men were wearing the same clothes (a neutral outfit of gray long-sleeved shirt and khaki pants). Each man attempted 15 crossings at an unsignalized midblock crosswalk on a two-lane, one-way street in downtown Portland.

In the total of 168 crossings observed by the researchers (who were out of sight), the black men had to wait 32 percent longer than the white men for a car to yield to them, with almost twice as many cars passing them by at each crossing. The researchers did not note the race of the drivers.

The sample size is undeniably small, but the results were more marked than the researchers expected. “Our data were so powerful,” says Kahn, who is also an expert in field research and experimental design. On the strength of those results, the researchers are applying for funding to expand the study and to look at other variables, including the race of the driver and the gender of both drivers and pedestrians.

Kahn says that one impetus for the research was to better understand the wide disparity in pedestrian fatality rates among different racial groups. African Americans on foot are killed by cars at a rate 60 percent higher than whites.

“We can’t say this is the only reason,” Kahn says. “But it could lead people to potentially use dangerous crossing behavior.” If someone has to traverse multiple streets on the way to or from work or home and encounters repeated failures to yield, she says, the cumulative frustration could make them more likely to try to push through and force drivers to yield.

Kahn says that the findings of the study mirror the patterns she has documented in her other research. “One thing I’ve seen across all my work is that modern forms of bias tend to be more at this subtle or implicit level,” she says. “We’ve seen that the majority of Americans hold these implicit attitudes.” Those implicit biases play out in a variety of arenas, including the delivery of health care.

When people have to make quick decisions, their implicit, subconscious biases can come into play in ways that they don’t when they have time to stop and consider their actions, engaging their more conscious awareness of other human beings as individuals.

Driving is exactly the kind of high-speed, high-stimulus situation in which implicit bias thrives. “Driving is one of the most complex tasks that we do, but we do it as if we’re sitting in an armchair,” says Goddard, who is a doctoral student at PSU and who conducted the fieldwork for the study. “We’re eating and drinking, and some people are watching things, and we’re doing all of that at speeds we aren’t evolved to handle.”

Goddard says she is interested in testing how more signage or traffic-calming measures such as bulb-outs, which narrow the roadway and slow traffic, might affect the way drivers react to African American pedestrians, as well as members of other minority groups.

“As a transportation planner, I’m not going to be able to work on people’s racial biases,” she says. “But can we design our roads in such a way that it trumps those biases?”

Top image: Vaclav Mach / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

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