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The Latest Bleak Evidence That Crossing the Street Is Hazardous to Your Health

Two new studies suggest you may not be safe inside a crosswalk.

We stumble across a lot of depressing studies and stories at Cities about your chances as a pedestrian or cyclist of getting side-swiped by a passing car (in a bike lane, on a sidewalk, passing through an intersection). Today, though, just feels like a pile-on. First up, we have an alarming study out of New York City summarized in this morning's New York Times with this succinct conclusion:

Pedestrians struck by cars are most often hit while in the crosswalk, with the signal on their side.

That research, from the NYU Langone Medical Center, looked at 1,400 pedestrians and cyclists who were treated at Bellevue Hospital Center after suffering a collision. Forty-four percent of the pedestrians injured on the street (to distinguish them from the handful who were injured on a sidewalk) were using a crosswalk with the signal in their favor, suggesting that there wasn't much else they could be expected do to keep out the cross-hairs of car traffic. In contrast, 23 percent of the injured pedestrians were trying to cross the street mid-block, while only 9 percent admitted to crossing at an intersection against the signal.

That study had one notable caveat: Pedestrians who died and never reached the hospital were not included. One other detail made us raise our eyebrows: "As New Yorkers brace for contact," the Times' Matt Flegenheimer writes, "an unexpected factor may protect against serious injury: being overweight." (We're pretty sure, though, that obesity is not a good policy avenue to pursue here.)

This morning also brought a second study about the perils of crossing the street where you're supposed to. Researchers at Oregon State University have simulated driver behavior during one of the more risky maneuvers on the road: the left-hand turn into oncoming traffic. Some intersections have a dedicated green light for left-turning drivers. More often, though, they have to make a run for it whenever they can, darting through gaps in the oncoming traffic.

The traffic signals themselves vary widely from place to place in how these directions are given to drivers. And amid all these variables – the indecipherable signage, the multiple traffic lights, the oncoming cars – this study suggests that 4 to 9 percent of drivers never even pause to look if there are pedestrians in the way before pulling into the intersection.

Within the simulated environment, subjects were presented with combinations of approaches with zero, three or nine oncoming vehicles; pedestrians walking towards, away or from both sides; and a four-section vertical configuration or a three-section vertical configuration with a dual-arrow lens.

In all, drivers were exposed to 24 different left-hand maneuvers in the 45-minute simulation, as their eye movements were tracked. Not surprisingly, as the number of approaching cars increased, the amount of time drivers spent focusing on pedestrians declined.

The implications of this second study are more obvious: Cities might want to rethink how they design intersections with permitted left-hand turns. But both sets of research portray a troubling picture that pedestrians may not be safe even within the crosswalks designed for their safety.

Top image: Amy Johansson/Shutterstock

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.