It is time. It is time for pedestrians to have a real, regulatory, and instructive sign of their own at midblock crosswalks that drivers recognize and heed. A Yield-to-Pedestrians sign.
Midblock crosswalks are often just markings on the pavement, and drivers don’t see them until they are on top of them.
Of course, there are plenty of drivers that are unaware they are required to yield to pedestrians, and some that are simply uninterested in yielding. Compliance is abysmal, and that is why pedestrians get hit — and both compliance and injuries get worse with higher-speed roads.
Here are the general laws on midblock crosswalks (varies by state); the paint on the ground designates the legal crossing, which then requires the driver to give the pedestrian legal right-of-way once they step into the street. The paint is what provides the legal right-of-way, not the warning sign, nor blinking lights, nor flashing beacons; those are usually just aids to help the driver notice there is a pedestrian who is crossing. Note that if the pedestrian does not activate the flashers, the pedestrian still has the right-of-way (except HAWK signals).
Traffic engineers have been arguing for decades (see Herms Study) that midblock crossings give pedestrians a “false sense of security,” which has led to removing crosswalks and a resistance to putting them in. This is where I see a notable difference in the way institutions respond to driver versus pedestrian rights[-of-way].
Let’s compare our “sense of security” at 4-way stops when driving. At a stop sign, do you wait to make sure the cross-traffic stops before you go? Probably not. When you approach a signal and it’s green, do you check if the cross-traffic is stopping? No, because your sense of security is high. Compliance is quite good for stop signs and signals; people rarely run them. The traffic institutions have developed a STOP sign that is big, red, and instructive. It states in big letters what the driver is to do – STOP. The design of this sign, its color, shape, instruction, and standardization has evolved to cause a high level of compliance.
In places where compliance is still poor, and particularly where the car-crash rate is high, engineering guidance recommends larger signs, more signs, Stop Ahead warning signs, blinking red lights, and so forth until compliance is high. The institutional response to poor compliance is to solve the compliance problem!
In contrast, the institutional response to poor driver compliance at midblock crosswalks has been very different. Rather than solving the compliance problem, the response has been to blame the pedestrian victim for having a “false sense of security.”
To this day, the paint on the road is often the only evidence of a midblock crosswalk. Some states require a yellow warning sign with a universal silhouette of a pedestrian to improve awareness.
For comparison, let’s imagine at a 2-way or 4-way stop, a painted stop bar on the road is all there is to inform the driver to stop. You can imagine that compliance would drop and cause many more crashes. Not surprisingly, a well-known study (FHWA HRT-04-100) concluded that midblock crosswalks had more compliance and were safer when more than just paint was used to improve driver awareness.
Secondly, according to the MUTCD (Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices), stop signs are a “regulatory” sign. Yield signs and speed limit signs are also regulatory signs in that we can be issued a ticket when disobeyed. Yellow signs are “warning” signs. We rarely notice them. Police do not issue ticket for violating a warning sign such as yellow speed warning signs on off-ramps, for example. Now, imagine how stop compliance would be if there was only a yellow sign with a silhouette of a car to inform you to stop?
I also want you to consider the learned expectations as a driver or pedestrian. Imagine driving up to a 4-way stop and 80% of cars on the cross street blast through when it is your turn. Most drivers would get mad and honk. We don’t like our right-of-way taken. But for some reason, pedestrians appear far more accepting. Generally, I see pedestrians waiting patiently while drivers ignore their right-of-way at these midblock crosswalks. We miss this teaching opportunity. However, often pedestrians either feel politically disadvantaged, or they are drivers and tend to accept the privileged priority of the car, and of course, no one wants to become a statistic.
In the last decade, a few crosswalk signs are showing up that actually educate drivers on the law: “State Law – Yield to [pedestrians] within crosswalk” (MUTCD R1-6). These are helping. These long, thin signs are especially effective where cars are moving slowly and drivers can read them. They even go beyond just providing instruction, but warn that it’s the law. However, they are confusingly white (regulatory) and yellow (warning). A regulatory (white), pedestrian-crosswalk sign also is now in the books (MUTCD R1-5), but it is similar in shape and size to a speed limit sign and is hard to read and easy to ignore.
The correct sign to drivers at a midblock crosswalk is a YIELD sign. That is what drivers are supposed to do — YIELD to pedestrians at midblock crosswalks. This is a shape with which people are familiar. The first thing drivers notice is a sign’s shape, and the YIELD sign is a familiar shape. However, to make it unique to pedestrian crosswalks so people know to look for pedestrians and not cars, perhaps add a standard pedestrian crosswalk sign that makes the shape still obviously a yield sign, but unique enough to be recognizable from far away. This is a visible, familiar, regulatory, and instructive sign.
Pedestrians have been treated as second-class citizens for a long time starting with losing our rights to the street in the ‘20s (read Fighting Traffic), and then — in the case of the pedestrian right-of-way at midblock crosswalks — the same institutions that create high compliance for car-related controls have been unwilling to do the same for pedestrians, ultimately blaming the victims for their “false sense of security” without responding to the horrific compliance problem.
Admittedly, traffic engineers have been trained and ordered to move cars, and pedestrians can be a hindrance to that myopic goal. It’s time to retrain and reprioritize. It’s time for a sign.