Deaths in the Crosswalks
Despite a decade of efforts, the number of pedestrians injured and killed locally is climbing.
From the June, 2019 issue
It's a story too often told: a U-M student was critically injured in January crossing E. Huron between Thayer and Ingalls. He'd safely crossed two eastbound lanes in a crosswalk by the U-M's Rackham Building--then was struck by a westbound car that didn't stop.
Making streets safer for pedestrians has been a city priority for almost a decade. In 2010, a video produced by the Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition showed cars whipping through crosswalks, ignoring middle schoolers on Seventh and a woman with a white cane on Plymouth.
City council responded by passing a law that requires stopping for pedestrians if they're even approaching a crosswalk. Other cities require drivers only to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks.
Supporters called it an overdue effort to make the city safer. Critics warned it could have the opposite effect: "Any city that thinks it can pass traffic laws different from those of the surrounding area and not post signs about it is asking for tragedy," an Observer reader commented on an article about the new law. But then-mayor John Hieftje vetoed an attempt to repeal it in 2013, and a 2017 study called the stricter standard "reasonable."
Now, says transportation manager Eli Cooper, the city is working on "a significant new planning initiative [under] the umbrella Vision Zero, something brought to North America from the Scandinavian countries that must value human life more." The goal: eliminate traffic-related fatalities by 2025.
So far, though, accidents involving pedestrians have been rising, not falling. There were 412 pedestrian-vehicle crashes in the period from 2000 to 2008, but 494 in the years 2009-2017, the last year with complete data. Critical injuries rose from forty-one to fifty-six, and fatalities increased from seven to nine.
Of those nine, four died on the highways around town--three walking along the shoulder or attempting to cross, one while changing a flat tire. Two died crossing surface streets at spots without crosswalks, on Ann Arbor-Saline Rd. and Geddes.
like the man crossing Huron in January, three were struck in crosswalks: Qi-Xuan "Justin" Tang was killed in 2016 on Fuller while walking to Huron High School. U-M employee Nancy Sanders was hit by a bus crossing Zina Pitcher Place on her way to work in 2014. And in 2013, U-M student Sharita Williams was killed on Plymouth near Traver Village Shopping Center.
Williams was the fourth person killed on Plymouth since 2000, making it the city's deadliest street. Helen Filipiak was struck walking back to the Sunrise Assisted Living Facility in 2002, and U-M students Norhananim Zainol and Teh Nanni Roshema Roslan were hit by a pickup in 2003 returning to North Campus after prayers at the Islamic Center.
Before Zainol and Roslan died, the city had rejected repeated requests for a stoplight at the Islamic Center. Afterward, it added a pedestrian crossing at the center and improved an existing crossing by Willowtree Apartments.
Yet pedestrian-vehicle accidents there continue: there were seventeen on Plymouth between 2009 and 2017. And though Williams was the only fatality, hers was particularly shocking, because she was in a crosswalk with the lights flashing. In three lanes, drivers stopped--but when she stepped into the fourth lane, she was struck by a speeding car.
Nationally, pedestrian fatalities have been climbing ever since the Great Recession. The Governors Highway Safety Association estimates that 6,227 died in 2018, making it the worst year since 1990.
Ann Arbor has tried to fight that trend by redesigning streets and changing drivers' behavior. As city administrator Howard Lazarus notes in a January memo to council, in the past three years the city has added crosswalks at twenty locations, installed rectangular rapid-flashing beacon (RRFB) warning lights at nineteen, and added lighting at twenty-seven, along with other improvements. This year the city plans to mark thirteen new crosswalks, install RRFBs at nine, and illuminate forty-one.
To change drivers' behavior, the city has used education and enforcement. In 2016, city council appropriated $150,000 for a study led by Western Michigan University psychology prof Ron Van Houten. Of that, $60,000 went to pay for intensified enforcement.
Over three two-week periods between June and November 2017, then for another two weeks in June 2018, AAPD officers handed out citations and warnings at six crosswalks. The WMU team monitored drivers' behavior there, and at six other crosswalks used as controls.
They found that drivers' behavior did change where the officers were doing enforcement--but the effects weren't limited to the targeted crossings.
At the enforcement sites, the number of cars stopping for pedestrians increased from 28 percent to 65 percent. But even at the control locations, stopping went from 34 percent to 53 percent.
Ward Two councilmember Kathy Griswold, a longtime pedestrian safety advocate, thinks those numbers are misleading. "What deeply troubles me is that we reported this data ... as if it indicated that we were improving our crosswalks safety and that pedestrians were safer as a result," she says. "This is a very small slice of everything that we're doing, so I don't think they reflect reality."
"It seems like a valid study," responds Linda Diane Feldt, chair of the city's Pedestrian Safety and Access Task Force. "They were forthcoming about what they were measuring."
But what if Griswold is right that more people stopping does not equate to fewer people dying? Could crosswalks be giving pedestrians a false sense of safety?
"What do you suggest as the alternative?" Feldt responds. "You can terrify all the pedestrians and bicyclists and keep them off the streets. But there are studies that show that the more pedestrians and bicyclists there are out, the safer they are. It's stunning: as your mass increases, safety goes way up."
Van Houten says good driving begets good driving. "Yielding to pedestrians is public behavior and [drivers who do] became models," he says. Earlier studies he ran in Gainesville, Florida, and St. Paul, Minnesota, also saw more drivers yielding, he says--and "four years later, they were still better.
"This is about changing driving culture: We do what we see other people doing."
Van Houten says his studies are designed "to get people to look for pedestrians. When you're driving, you see what you're looking for. If you look for pedestrians and bicycles, you see them. If you just look for cars in front of you, you won't see pedestrians."
But changing drivers' behavior is a huge task just for Ann Arbor residents. There are another estimated 80,000 people who live elsewhere and drive into the city for work. How can we change commuters' behavior?
"We have to make it known to the people coming in," Van Houten says.
Feldt acknowledges "we can't reach them all." However, she has an idea she believes will help. "Drop the speed limit on every road, including the ones that MDOT has control over: Huron, Washtenaw, Plymouth."
Griswold believes the city's crosswalks themselves are the problem. "We need to pause on any new crosswalks until we bring our crosswalks up to minimum standards," she says.
Eli Cooper agrees the crosswalks need work. "Folks might say 'My God, why does it take so long?' We have literally hundreds of crosswalks, and with the resources that we have available, we're doing the best we can. We've got a lot more to do."
Cooper reports that the city has 215 crosswalks on major streets and "additional crosswalks throughout the city at too many intersections to note."
Griswold and Feldt also endorse Vision Zero's goal of a world with no pedestrian fatalities. "We have data to show that it's possible," Griswold says. "New York City adopted Vision Zero a few years ago, and they significantly reduced pedestrian crashes." They're now down to the same rate as 1914.
"I'm absolutely 100 percent behind it," says Feldt. She believes that the key will be continuing to redesign roads to better protect pedestrians and bicyclists.
"There's gonna be human error," says Griswold. The question is, "What can we do to design the roadway and to provide education to minimize that?"
But if roadways and education are the answer, why are more pedestrians dying? And, even more shockingly, why are they dying in crosswalks?
The crosswalks where Justin Tang and Sharita Williams died were both marked since the passage of the 2010 law. At the time of Tang's death in October 2016, emails city communications specialist Robert Kellar, it had "high visibility pavement markings and school crossings signs. There also would have been fluorescent yellow green pedestrian crossing signs." Since Tang's death, Kellar writes, the city has added streetlights, an RRFB, and active speed zone assemblies that warn drivers to slow down when students are crossing.
Tang might not have died, Griswold says, "if the Fuller crosswalk was built to the same specifications as the crosswalk on Geddes at the entrance to Gallup Park." She believes that a poorly marked crosswalk is more dangerous than no crosswalk at all. "The pedestrian may have a false sense of safety in a marked crosswalk," she emails, "just as our local ordinance creates a false sense of safety."
For decades, there was no crosswalk on Fuller where Tang died. (There is a gate at the railroad tracks, which students from the Angell School neighborhood also must cross to get to the high school.) Yet longtime Huron principal Al Gallup, who worked there from the day it opened in 1969 until 1983, doesn't remember any pedestrians being hurt on Fuller in his time.
Could marking the crosswalk actually have made it more dangerous?
"That is a painful thing to speculate on," emails Feldt. "But removing crosswalks doesn't save lives. People--and especially students--will cross the road mostly where they find it convenient. A crosswalk adds safety features. The more, the better. We want people to look for and use safe and convenient crosswalks. It makes the driver-pedestrian interaction more predictable and safer."
Feldt doesn't buy Griswold's theory that crosswalks create an illusion of security.
"I talk to a huge number of walkers," she says, "and their fear of cars has kept up with the escalation in distracted driving, one of the leading causes of pedestrian and bicycle fatalities.
"Students have always felt entitled to walk wherever they want whenever they want. It's gotten worse with cell phones and texting," Feldt says. But "I don't think we've entitled anybody or given false promises that cars aren't going to be stupid. People are going to be stupid. You can't legislate against stupidity."
Maybe you can't legislate against it, Griswold says, but you can warn people against it.
"People should never feel safe in crosswalks," she says. "People frequently tell me that the local ordinance gives the pedestrians a false sense of safety, especially when they enter the crosswalk without looking."
As critical as Griswold is of the city's efforts in the past, she says she's "very optimistic" about the future. "We've got the votes" on city council, she explains--she's one of three new members elected last fall, giving what the Observer calls the "Back to Basics Caucus" a 7-4 majority.
She's also looking beyond Ann Arbor. Griswold and Ypsi state rep Ronnie Peterson have drafted a bill to amend the state vehicle code, making the state's crosswalk laws uniformly enforced across Michigan. Though this would supersede Ann Arbor's own law, it has the support of mayor Christopher Taylor.
"The city's crosswalk ordinance, in an ideal world, would be more beneficial," Taylor says. "But the benefits of statewide enforcement and education override the benefits we have from having a unique and strong local ordinance." It would also simplify compliance for the 80,000 drivers commuting into Ann Arbor daily.
But no matter how consistent the law, or how well marked the crosswalk, pedestrians will still be in danger. On Plymouth Rd. in 2013, three vehicles stopped to let Sharita Williams cross. That 75 percent yielding rate would have looked impressive in Van Houten's survey--if a car in the fourth lane hadn't killed her.
On Huron in January, the results weren't quite so dire--the student was critically injured but survived. But the scenario was the same: drivers heading one direction stopped to let him enter the crosswalk, but a driver heading the other way kept coming.
Unless every driver yields every time, pedestrians will always need to look out for themselves--and treat every lane as a new threat.
For Cooper, the city transportation chief, that goes without saying. "The city has never promoted 'cross without looking,'" he says. "People need to understand that when you go to cross the street, the life you save may be your own.
"It might be that you have the right of way, but it's not good to be dead right."
from Calls & Letters, July 2019
"A big, undiscussed problem with the xwalk danger is signage," John Morris emailed after reading "Deaths in the Crosswalks" (June). "There are way too many signs along our busy streets. Try reading every sign as you drive and you will be so distracted that seeing a pedestrian is almost impossible. Many bus stops are also next to xwalks so people are standing around waiting for a bus ... right next to the xwalk. Are they about to cross the street or waiting for a bus? Too many signs, especially for out of towners."
[Originally published in June, 2019.]
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