Some see Michigan’s crosswalk safety rules as unclear
Communities are asking for more signage, but not all agree that’s best.
LANSING — When a car and a pedestrian meet at a crosswalk, what’s supposed to happen?
It’s a safety question that’s left some Michigan communities requesting more signs to remind drivers to yield for pedestrians.
But some officials aren’t sure more yield signs will help, or what will.
Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, said he’s seen an unusually high amount of requests for the signs in the last year — but he’s not so sure they’re a great idea. The signs could give pedestrians a false sense of security that could lead to injury, he said.
“We don’t have a solution yet.”
Agency officials could not immediately provide data for the number of requests for such signs.
Michigan had 129 pedestrian fatalities in 2012, according to a 2013 preliminary report from the Governors Highway Safety Association.
The group reported 41 fatalities in the first half of 2013, down from 54 for the same period in 2012. There were 1,985 pedestrian deaths reported nationwide during this period, down from 2,175 in 2012.
About 9 percent of pedestrian fatalities occurred in crosswalks, according to a 2008 National Pedestrian Crash Report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The issue might not be a false sense of security, but rather that accidents can still occur at crosswalks, especially on multilane streets, if cars stop immediately before the crosswalk and block the view of other cars, said Ron Van Houten, a psychology professor at Western Michigan University. His research shows that having markers earlier on the road before a crosswalk can reduce the risk of crashes.
Van Houten’s research focuses on pedestrian safety and has been funded by the transportation department.
It’s clear many drivers and pedestrians are unsure of what to do when they meet on the road, said Suzy Carter, executive director of the Lansing Area Safety Council. More yield signs — even temporary ones — could remind drivers to yield and increase safety.
She said the multitasking she’s seen by pedestrians on their phones also causes safety concerns when they use crosswalks.
While the use of alcohol among both drivers and pedestrians is a significant concern, Van Houten said distracted driving and walking has become a safety issue, too.
The issue of safety with the signs is not a one-size-fits-all problem to solve, said Brian Pawlik, co-chair of the pedestrian and bicycle safety action team for the Governor’s Traffic Safety Advisory Commission and planner for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.
“The local land use and roadway context will dictate whether that’s an applicable design feature,” Pawlik said.
“Yield for pedestrian” signs on the streets are more effective when placed at the center of a two-lane, two-way road and less effective on multilane roads with two or more lanes traveling each direction, according to a 2012 report evaluating pedestrian safety improvements from the Michigan Department of Transportation.
Van Houten said other yield markings involving light signals also might improve pedestrian safety. Gateway signs, where yield and crosswalk signs are placed in the middle of a street and on either side of a crosswalk, also have increased safety.
More research needs to be done, particularly with roads in the Upper Peninsula, as they can vary from those in the Lower Peninsula, he said.
The increase in requests for yield signs may be linked to Complete Street legislation that passed in 2010. It focuses on road planning involving all road users, said Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, who’s holding statewide meetings to determine a uniform understanding of crosswalk rules.
While street signs may or may not help protect pedestrians, Zemke said citizen safety on crosswalks goes beyond road planning.
He’s met with safety advocates and officials from Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Oakland County and Traverse City, as well as representatives from the Michigan Department of Transportation and Michigan State Police who were interested in increasing crosswalk safety.
His concern rose in part from Ann Arbor’s enactment of a controversial local crosswalk ordinance that is different from the Michigan Uniform Traffic Code.
The ordinance, which was enacted after a series of crosswalk-related injuries and a death, requires motorists to stop for pedestrians at the curb, not just those already in a crosswalk.
Zemke is unsure what solutions could work, but he wants to develop a standard rule for crosswalks that can be taught in driver education courses. No clear legislation establishes crosswalk safety rules, he said. He hopes to begin writing a bill with the group soon.
“We’re a conduit for these local communities,” Zemke said. “From the state’s perspective, we’re not doing our due diligence currently to support motorists and pedestrians across the state, and that’s what we’re looking to change.”
Uniformity is good when it comes to road safety, Van Houten said, but education, enforcement and engineering need to work together to solve the issue.
Carter said it might be time for a public education campaign that specifies what should happen at a crosswalk.
“It’s kind of a gray area for motorists and pedestrians,” Carter said. “There needs to be more education and more enforcement for whatever the consequences are.”