“Stop and Stay Stopped” Crosswalk Law Has Created Many New Dangers

15 Feb

It appears quite apparent that adequate scientific study was not conducted prior to implementation of the “Stop and Stay Stopped” crosswalk law in states such as New Jersey.  This retraining of driver and pedestrian expectations and the associated logistical impossibilities has resulted in so many new dangers that listing them is like shooting fish in a barrel.

This law effectively mandates two additional “Primary Tasks” for drivers as they are now required to continually take their eyes off the road while attempting to process the ever evolving intentions of pedestrians at the side (or both sides) of the street!  This is analogous to the young male driver who is distracted by an attractive woman – make that two attractive women – standing on opposite sides of the street!  In addition, drivers are also expected to scan the street (often obstructed by the rise of a hill, rain, or wear) for the existence, perhaps proliferation, of unexpected crosswalks.  For a more scientific understanding of all this see the National Safety Council’s entries concerning “Distracted Driving” and “Primary Task”.  Keep in mind that the above difficulties are in no way analogous to the effort needed to interpret “stop” signs, red lights or crossing guards – all of which are unambiguous and require only one quick glance for a complete understanding as to the actions required of the driver.

Some of the new “Stop and Stay Stopped” dangers are described below.

•           The law effectively mandates driver distraction and violates the driver’s golden rule – “Keep your eyes on the road!”  Drivers have much less time to observe developments on the road ahead as they are now required to continually interpret the intentions of pedestrians at the side of the road (both sides for that matter).  This requires high level mental processing and prolonged attention (unlike the simple one time glance required for a “stop” sign).  Think of the classic (and true) scenario in which a male driver is briefly distracted by an attractive female pedestrian.  He momentarily forgets about his obligation to keep his eyes on the road and “bam!”  Don’t forget to multiply this distraction by two (for both sides of the road).

•           The law violates the spirit of the pedestrian golden rule – “Look both ways before crossing!”  This of course always included the implicit “Don’t cross when cars are coming!”  This was another way of saying that – should you have an encounter with a car – you (the pedestrian) are going to pay the price!  The proper behavioral options have always been to; cross at intersections with the green light; cross where crossing guards or “stop” signs exist; cross at pedestrian bridges; or be fully aware of the danger and cross at other locations.  None of these prior options negated the responsibility of the driver to drive safely and within the speed limit.

•           The proliferation of new crosswalk lines – often mid block with no signage – also violates the pedestrian’s second golden rule – “Cross at the green, not in-between!”  It appears that towns are now taking advantage of the new law by painting crosswalks anywhere they want – often mid block – in order to avoid dealing with the real issue which is that their roads are not “pedestrian safe”.  In addition, even where crosswalks don’t exist, many pedestrians now seem to believe that cars are required to stop for them.  Not so bright, but do they deserve to die?

•           Crossing the street in the absence of “approaching cars” has been made much less feasible, and even impossible at times!  One of the most ironic, and unnecessarily dangerous “real world” results of this law (exasperated by increased enforcement) has been the way it has taken away the pedestrian’s ability to cross the street at the time of her choosing in the absence of oncoming traffic.  This is even more prelevant on low traffic roads.  Previously, a person could stand at the edge of the curb, wait a few seconds, then cross without any approaching cars.  What happens now is that the few approaching cars tend to slow down greatly, without any legal obligation to do so.  The lead car may even stop.  A similar backlog may – or may not – exist from the opposite direction (far side) depending on whether those drivers decide to take the law literally.  Ironically, the “literal” interpretation would cause them to keep moving.  Our pedestrian now has a hazardous crossing with many stressors where none existed previously.  She knows that if she “waves” the (erroneously stopped) vehicle through, the delay could go on all night as the conditions repeat themselves with the trailing cars.  In addition, she may fear that pedestrians approaching from behind (unaware of this interaction) could be struck by the lead car.  So what we end up with is a situation in which children, the elderly, the handicapped, or simply the “shy” may feel pressured to not keep the lead driver waiting.  Many times, in fact, these pedestrians enter the roadway despite the fact that the far side traffic (obeying the law) is still moving across their intended path!  Again: “Old Scenario” = 0% risk ……. “New Scenario” = (you fill in the percent).

•           Pedestrians are not visible at night!  Often because the crosswalk is mid block with no lighting, often because they are in the street standing between a stopped cars’ blinding headlights, and sometimes compounded by the pedestrians’ wearing of official NY/NJ colors (black) – people now routinely cross the road with no idea how invisible they actually are!  This is made much worse by the very high numbers of aged drivers suffering from early stage cataracts (“night blindness”).  We all know how difficult it is to see an approaching car whose driver forgot to turn his headlights on, or the jogger/bicyclist who is not wearing light colored or reflective clothing.  Pedestrians located to the side, out of the driver’s line of sight, are now suddenly planting themselves directly in front of approaching cars!  This is an unfortunate consequence of a new undue confidence on the part of pedestrians.  By the way – highly reflective “pedestrian crossing” signs don’t help here – unless those crossing the street are wearing them!

•           The fear of receiving a ticket is often a danger in and of itself.  Drivers now suddenly stop mid-block where a crosswalk does not exist.  This risks serious rear end collisions and puts the jay walking pedestrian at risk of being run over by an unsuspecting car passing from behind.

•           The well known “back and forth” courtesy dance creates many new unforeseen dangers.  Pedestrians frequently wave cars through, unbeknownst to the pedestrians behind them!  In addition, stationary drivers who are focusing on the pedestrian located on one side of the road may – in a nervous and honest attempt to be polite – suddenly continue on after this wave having no idea that a third pedestrian just entered the roadway from the near side (right of driver).  This pedestrian (who had seen the car stop and who was now checking traffic from the opposite direction) could easily be run over with just one quick tap on the accelerator.  A number of other scenarios could be added to this category as well.

•           In real world terms – there are logistical impossibilities and dangers in this law.  Pedestrians are required to step into the line of traffic for the “Stop and Stay Stopped” requirement to take place.  If the goal of the law is to keep pedestrians safe, is this not counterproductive?  What about pedestrians entering the crosswalk from between parked cars?  Or problems originating from another questionable safety design issue in which “bump outs” have been installed in front of schools – effectively corralling students to the edge of traffic (like “human traffic cones”) thus eliminating the former shoulder?

And how should the very common situation in which pedestrians congregate on the street, just off the curb, with no intention of crossing be handled?  Perhaps drivers need to get out of their cars and ask the pedestrians to step back on the sidewalk?  It’s unclear under what conditions the driver would be allowed to proceed.

The online description of this law even (originally) stated the need for drivers and pedestrians to establish “eye contact” in some situations!  Here again – what about nighttime?  Tinted windows?  Sunglasses worn by one, or both, of the participants?  What if the participants do not have super vision and so on?

•           Pedestrians have developed a number of dangerous habits.  These include crossing high speed intersections against a red light.  And pedestrians visiting jurisdictions outside the effective area of the “Stop and Stay Stopped” law will presumably be at increased risk should they not remember to adjust their assumptions.  For example a person crossing against traffic in New York City.

•           There are a number of “passing” issues for drivers.  These include the situation in which a large vehicle in front slows to a near stop and activates its’ right blinker.  A smaller vehicle slowly passing from behind could easily run over an unsuspecting pedestrian.  In this scenario, the trailing driver is unable to see the pedestrian and has no idea that the driver of the larger vehicle (about to turn) is also actively encouraging the pedestrian to hurry up and cross the street.  This is another example of the “back and fourth” dance in combination with the fear of receiving a ticket.  Both a result of the retraining of expectations.

•           Crosswalks – wherever they exist – now function as part time “Stop” signs with plenty of room for human error.  Police cars (often with sirens off) regularly speed down my road on their way to catch the bad guys.  I assume they do not recklessly run red lights and “stop” signs as the likelihood of deadly results is well known and predictable.  However, I am not sure the police treat these numerous new (and existing) crosswalks with the same concern.  These are of course the legal equivalent of part time “stop” signs.  For regular drivers as well, these crosswalks – unlike red lights and “stop” signs – require continual attention and mental processing in order to distinguish whether the “stop” law applies or not.

•           Sun glare conditions are more hazardous now at these crosswalks.  When unexpectedly hit by sun glare, drivers suddenly slow down, but not so much as to be rear ended by the driver behind.  They then quickly adjust their visors while maintaining a steady head position enabling them to see a narrow patch of road directly ahead of them.  They can no longer divert their attention back and forth to the sides of the road.  Unfortunately the driver’s action of slowing down may be interpreted by the pedestrian as an intention to stop.  The pedestrian – facing away from the sun and unaware of any issue – may then turn his head to check traffic from the other direction as he steps into the crosswalk.

•           Oddities in the implementation of the law.  These include inconsistencies such as unsigned crosswalks; faded and unsigned crosswalks; or excessive numbers of these “pedestrian crossing” signs located right next to each other.  In one case, near my home, one of these large yellow “pedestrian crossing” signs was planted right next to an existing “stop” sign, actually blocking the view of the “stop” sign from drivers!  This is nuts!  Exactly who have we delegated these life and death decisions to?!

On a personal note, I’m tired of nearly running over pedestrians through no fault of my own!  The often quoted assumption that drivers don’t care about the safety of these pedestrians contradicts simple logic, observation, and human nature.  Does anyone reading this know a friend or family member who would not be seriously upset by the thought they had just run over someone with their car?  If you do, you may be hanging out with the wrong crowd.  In fact, the proof of the law’s danger lays in the obvious comparison between how often drivers blow through “stop” signs, and how often they do the same at many of these crosswalks.  As already noted – “stop” signs require just one quick glance for compliance, are unambiguous, and easily seen and interpreted at night.  Virtually no one “blows through” these for fear of danger to themselves or others (regardless of the legalities).  Yet these exact same drivers – well aware of the new law by now – are often seen driving through crosswalks in which a pedestrian had just entered!  Hint, hint – read that last sentence again!

In addition, because complying to this law creates – by necessity – an ongoing distraction for drivers; it means that as general compliance increases, so do many of the dangers described above.  In this way, safety gains resulting from increased compliance may be self limiting.  This cannot be said for traditional “stop” signs and lights.

Considering the deadly nature of the resulting interactions (car on person), parents will likely come away from this essay with one overwhelming piece of advice for their children as they walk to school – “Do not trust that cars are going to stop for you when you enter the crosswalk!”  So, it seems that the best way to stay safe is to not trust the effectiveness of this law designed to keep us safe!  This brings us back to “Look both ways and try to cross when cars are not coming”.  And, if this is in fact the safer approach, it means that the law actually requires pedestrians to go against the safer approach before the law kicks in (by stepping out into the road at a crosswalk).  The law is in effect creating, and then promoting, a false sense of security.  On the plus side, let’s not forget that the law cuts down on litigation time and helps avoid the greater issue of building roads that are pedestrian friendly.

Incredibly, the organizations in New Jersey most responsible for ensuring the safety of pedestrians have failed to respond directly to any of the observations listed above.  I eventually received only a generic “we are interested in safety” letter from the NJDOT.  After many months of not hearing back concerning numerous mailings (email and snail mail) in which I requested info as to “who I should be contacting” with these observations – I finally spoke again to the head of the Rutgers University organization responsible for the state’s annual “Pedestrian Safety” report.  He acknowledged (as I had suspected) that his predecessor was involved in the original recommendations leading to this “Stop and Stay Stopped” legislation.  In addition, he was personally responsible for running the training sessions showing the police how to perform “sting” operations in relation to this law.

Hopefully this essay will convince a few scientifically minded individuals to take a serious look at this very serious issue affecting nearly everyone living in states where this law exists!