As we discussed previously, New York City’s Vision Zero Initiative aims to practically eliminate traffic accidents within the city. While great progress has been made with reduced speed limits, expanded bike lanes, and education campaigns, there’s one area of concern that may warrant a second look.
Crosswalk design is a science and, like any science, is subject to changes with new data. And while NYC’s traffic initiatives have significantly reduced accidents so far, is it possible that certain crosswalk designs are actually causing more crashes?
The Beg Button
It’s no secret that most crosswalk buttons don’t work, even though they’re present at nearly every intersection. While these were once necessary for managing NYC traffic, they’ve become outdated and potentially dangerous.
Because most crosswalk buttons don’t do anything, pedestrians can feel like they’re stuck at an intersection, especially those with a longer traffic pattern. Pedestrians may not realize why they’re not getting the walk signal and may attempt to cross the street on their own.
This phenomenon has been known for decades. The longer pedestrians stand at an intersection, the more likely they are to attempt to cross it on their own, regardless of whether it is safe to do so. When beg buttons don’t work, pedestrians often feel helpless and are more willing to jaywalk.
At the same time, a handful of intersections have installed automatic pedestrian detection systems, which function similarly to the beg button, except these actually have an impact on traffic flow. Whether these are effective at reducing accidents is still unclear, as research suggests some intersections see significantly reduced pedestrian injuries, while others saw no statistical change.
But the problem of crosswalk buttons goes further than that. Blind or visually impaired New Yorkers may struggle to know when it’s safe to cross, especially if the button doesn’t do anything. To this end, the city has begun installing specialized pedestrian signals across the city. These are not normal crosswalk buttons; they produce a sound and vibrate when it’s safe to cross.
The problem is that the city is rolling out these changes very slowly. In 2019, only 550 intersections had accessible crosswalk buttons. When you consider that there are over 10,000 intersections across the five boroughs, it’s easy to understand why the city needs to change out these outdated beg buttons as soon as possible.
A countdown clock for the walk signal seems like a great idea. Pedestrians always know how much time is left before the yellow light, which makes it easier to judge when there’s enough time left to cross the street. However, while countdown timers are effective at preventing pedestrians crashes, some data suggest they may cause more car crashes from drivers running red lights.
One study conducted in Toronto found evidence that intersections with newly installed countdown timers significantly reduced pedestrian accidents and fatalities when compared to crash rates at those same intersections in previous years. Curiously, however, car crashes at those intersections quadrupled.
According to one follow-up study, the reasoning is that drivers are more likely to speed through an intersection and potentially run a red light when they can see how much time is left on the countdown clock. This is a surprisingly common issue, and it can happen at any NYC intersection with a crosswalk countdown timer.
Crucially, accidents caused by drivers watching the countdown timer tended to be far more serious and were more likely to be fatal. That’s because they were most often t-bone collisions, which tend to hit the driver or their passengers directly, without the padding of the crumple zone to cushion the impact.
That raises the question: If countdown timers are more likely to cause a fatal car crash than they are to prevent a pedestrian accident, is it time to replace these traffic signals altogether? Some traffic engineers have suggested exactly that, proposing that countdown timers either should not be visible to drivers or that they should replace the visible timer with an audible countdown that can only be heard by pedestrians.
However, just as crosswalk buttons present problems for the visually impaired, an audible countdown could prove inconvenient for the deaf and hearing impaired. While it’s likely that something should change, it’s yet unclear what is the best way to design new crosswalk signals while making them as accessible as possible.
The Corner Crosswalk
Corner crosswalks are standard almost everywhere in the world, but is it time to rethink this fundamental of traffic design? As we discussed previously, midblock crossings were responsible for the overwhelming majority of pedestrian crashes just five years ago. However, the Vision Zero Initiative has developed upgraded midblock crosswalks that practically eliminated these accidents at crossings throughout midtown Manhattan.
These upgraded midblock crosswalks are effective, and it begs the question as to whether they should become standard. When someone crosses at the corner, they are exposing themselves to traffic from every lane, including drivers attempting to turn. At the midblock crosswalk, traffic only comes from the left or right, and there’s less risk of a driver speeding because of a countdown timer.
If more streets had midblock crossings and pedestrians weren’t reliant on walking to the corner, they could potentially decrease commute time while also decreasing street congestion and significantly reducing the risk of a serious crash.
If you or someone you love were struck at a crosswalk, you need affordable representation from a team you can trust. If you’d like an experienced New York City injury accident attorney from Koenigsberg & Associates Law Offices to evaluate your case, don’t hesitate to call us at (718) 690-3132 or send us an email!