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Pedestrian safety: Use the power of suggestion to slow speeders

Op-Ed by Ryan Gierach, West Hollywood, California

As West Hollywood comes to grips with demands from citizens to make pedestrian cross walks along Santa Monica Boulevard safer and tests best practice calming measures, a glance at the current scholarship on the subject offers some helpful hints on how to safely, and without obvious inconvenience to anyone, reduce the number of pedestrian accidents at crossings.

West Hollywood is currently studying measures to make pedestrian cross walks safer.

West Hollywood is currently studying measures to make pedestrian cross walks safer.

While alcohol, distracted drivers and distracted pedestrians, lack of adequate signage, too much signage or poorly timed crossing signals may get the better amount of the blame for pedestrian accidents, experts say that speed alone accounts for the majority of accidents – and the vast majority of deaths.

Drivers are notoriously bad, say researchers, at estimating risk behavior accurately. As Tom Vanderbilt put it recently in a NY Times piece, “Many motorists routinely drive fast because of the longstanding social norm that speeding does not represent a real crime.

“Social norms can be effective guides to behavior in situations where we would prefer that the law not intervene. They work in part because people might receive negative social feedback for violating them.”

Creating a social norm against drunk driving took decades to develop, using not only increasingly severe penalties, but huge dollops of social messaging over those decades to reduce rates.

While Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) changed the stakes for people who had long driven inebriated without social penalty. As Mr. Vanderbilt writes, though, “We rightly stigmatize impaired driving, but largely ignore the ‘sober driver problem,’ as a former General Motors researcher, Leonard Evans, recently put it.

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Yasser Mohammed, an art teacher in Oman running a public interest campaign featuring drawings on road safety done by Omani school children (from Batinah) between the ages of 10 and 18. The photos came from http://www.AndyinOman.com

Yasser Mohammed, an art teacher in Oman running a public interest campaign featuring drawings on road safety done by Omani school children (from Batinah) between the ages of 10 and 18. The photos came from http://www.AndyinOman.com

“’If alcohol were eliminated completely,’ Mr. Evans wrote, ‘we would still kill more than 20,000 per year.’

“The culprit in pedestrian deaths, Mr. Vanderbilt decrees, is speed.”

Except creating a social norm against speed and aggressive driving seems a higher climb.

Today, an aggressive driver, one who pushes the speed limit and makes chancy lane changes to navigate “against’ their competition on the road to cut a few seconds off their trip, receive no social feedback at all.

Which means there is no social penalty for aggressive driving, and only rarely a legal penalty – and then only if witnessed by law enforcement.

New York City recently lowered its speed limit across the city from 30 to 25 miles per hour in an effort to make the streets safer for crossing. Some cities have tried using well-marked speed cameras as a traffic slowing measure. Some municipalities do “stings” of cross walks to catch drivers who breeze through cross walks with nary a care.

Still, mandating and enforcing a new speed limit, according to Mr. Vanderbilt, will not suffice because insufficient social opprobrium falls onto those who see five miles an hour as virtually no difference at all, such as the lady someone trying to make a hair appointment or a youth a job interview.

He asserts that “psychological speed control” is really the best answer.

Most people, he asserts, fail to see what is dangerous about driving 5 or 10 m.p.h. above the new speed. “When the speed at which a car strikes a pedestrian rises a mere 10 m.p.h. — to 40 m.p.h. from 30 — the chance of the pedestrian’s dying rises to 85 percent from 45.”

Mr. Vanderbilt asserts, “The real question is not absolute speed but appropriate speed. Take Germany: Parts of its autobahn network are speed limit free, but many inner-city zones mandate 30 kilometers per hour (that’s 19 m.p.h.).”

This detail from the headline image shows a mother cradling her child's head after a pedestrian accident. Yasser Mohammed, an art teacher in Oman running a public interest campaign featuring drawings on road safety done by Omani school children (from Batinah) between the ages of 10 and 18. The photos came from http://www.AndyinOman.com

This detail from the headline image shows a mother cradling her child’s head after a pedestrian accident.
Yasser Mohammed, an art teacher in Oman running a public interest campaign featuring drawings on road safety done by Omani school children (from Batinah) between the ages of 10 and 18. The photos came from http://www.AndyinOman.com

He says the power of suggestion – even on the road – is effective in improving drivers’ behavior.

He noted a “study found that a driver was more likely to signal for a turn at an intersection if the preceding driver had also signaled.”

Likewise, if traffic is moving at an “appropriate” speed, he said, “Drivers can be nudged out of their worst instincts… “does your street have a center dividing line? If so, add a few m.p.h. to the average traffic speed. Does it have well-marked bike lanes? Cut a few m.p.h. Trees on the side? Drop some.”

He pointed out that “Ninth Avenue in New York City became safer for all users — drivers, bikers and pedestrians — just by taking a lane away.” Rather than make it more dangerous, he said, “Drivers pay more attention to these visual messages than whatever advisory signs are present.”

Thursday night at roughly 9 pm, I walked down to the 7/11 at Hayworth and Santa Monica Boulevard and ran across a temporary traffic slowing measure implemented by the city at local activists’ demand, a large temporary sign flashing Pedestrian Safe Zone – Pedestrian Crossing – while a man in a yellow vest stood watch over the crossing.

I found out that he was part of a consulting firm studying pedestrian safety in advance of the upcoming joint Transportation/Public Safety Commission meeting on September 15. Because he could not be officially interviewed by press, we will identify him only by a first initial, J.

J collected statistics on pedestrians crossing at the intersection, which has white stripes in the street and a variety of reflective caution signs and posts.

The cross walk lies a little less than a block from Fairfax Avenue; one of the chief problems, J noted, was drivers trying to make that traffic light before it goes red and ignoring possible pedestrians crossing at Hayworth.

A Sheriff's Deputy, having stopped this driver for blowing through a marked cross walk at full speed and about to levy a dose of pychological traffic control on the person.

A Sheriff’s Deputy, having stopped this driver for blowing through a marked cross walk at full speed and about to levy a dose of pychological traffic control on the person.

In the other direction, again a little less than a block away at Laurel Avenue, stands another traffic light; westbound traffic, succeeding in clearing the Fairfax lights want to get past the next potential obstacle, so often breeze through the Hayworth cross walk.

J recounted how many times he had seen a person trying to cross a street at a well-marked intersection, only to be brushed back by a car travelling at high speeds – and never caught.

“How many times did I wish a cop saw it happen?” he asked.

Well, sometimes the world works in exactly the correct way, because as I crossed the street to return home to process the few images I snapped, a woman crossing northbound got a brush back from a car moving along at 25 miles per hour or more.

She was not hit and uninjured, but it was close.

And the driver suddenly slowed to a halt and pulled over. Why?

Another painting by Omani children to remind drivers to slow down and drive responsibly. This speeder is chatting on a cell phone.

Another painting by Omani children to remind drivers to slow down and drive responsibly. This speeder is chatting on a cell phone.

Because a Sheriff’s cruiser had been facing eastbound awaiting pedestrians (me) to cross the street with the rest of the law-abiding folk.

His red and blues went on, a siren sounded and he made a sharp and quick U-turn, and a scofflaw driver soon received his dose of psychological speed control for the night.

The city council should make moves to slow traffic at various intersections, including removing medians, decreasing lane space, expanding bicycle lane space and even dropping from two lanes to one in problematic areas.

West Hollywood has been a thoroughfare city since its inception as a railyard. An extension of the Hollywood Freeway was once planned for Santa Monica Boulevard but nixed by Beverly Hills. People know that the easiest way from Hollywood to Beverly Hills and vice versa lies through the Creative City.

Giving drivers subtle, visual clues and reasons to slow their roll can only make life safer along Route 66. Conducting regular (and well-publicized) watches at especially impacted intersections would help get the world out to the people living or working in the Greater Metropolitan West Hollywood area and commuting through town.

On top of making changes to lighting, stoplight controls, signage and PR campaigns, West Hollywood should use these more subtle and effective techniques, techniques that do less to tovertly inconvenience drivers and assist them into seeing and complying with a new social norm.

Isn’t that, after all, the difference between West Hollywood’s way and the rest of the world’s? Harm reduction, education, advocacy and creativity?

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Tom Vanderbilt is the author of “Traffic” and a visiting scholar at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.

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