Expert Commentary

Crosswalks and pedestrian safety: What you need to know from recent research

Pedestrian deaths, on the rise in the U.S., are a perpetual policy issue local news outlets cover. Here's what the research says about what makes traffic intersections unsafe and crosswalk designs that can improve pedestrian safety.

pedestrian safety
(Jack Finnigan / Unsplash)

Each year, thousands of people die trying to cross roads in the U.S., making pedestrian safety a perpetual policy issue in cities and towns of all sizes. That’s why local news outlets pay close attention when government officials discuss crosswalk design and construction.

In recent months, news organizations have covered crosswalk construction or changes to existing crosswalks, including new, decorative pavers in Slidell, Louisiana, proposed infrastructure changes aimed at improving pedestrian safety in Phoenix, and decorative, themed crosswalks, such as rainbow crosswalks painted in towns across the country for Pride month.

Such stories call attention to the dangers of pedestrians and vehicles sharing roadways — and the rising rate of pedestrian deaths nationwide.

The Governors Highway Safety Association estimates at least 7,508 pedestrians were killed as a result of crashes on U.S. roadways in 2022. (Oklahoma did not submit data used for the analysis.)

The share of pedestrian deaths as a percentage of all traffic fatalities has risen 4.6 percentage points in recent years, from 13.0% in 2010 to 17.6% in 2021, according to the association’s latest preliminary pedestrian safety report, published in June 2023.

On top of those fatalities, there are more than 47,000 hospitalizations resulting from pedestrian crash injuries each year, according to a September 2020 analysis published in BMC Public Health.

Hotspots for pedestrian deaths — road corridors roughly a half-mile long with relatively high rates of deadly pedestrian-vehicle crashes — are more likely to be near commercial zones, have speed limits over 30 mph and have traffic volumes greater than 25,000 vehicles per day, according to January 2021 research published in The Journal of Transport and Land Use.

There is extensive research on measures that can improve pedestrian crossings. Recent studies have found that crosswalks are most effective when they are well lit at night and there is nearby signage alerting drivers they are coming up on a crosswalk.

Research also finds that Black and Hispanic pedestrians are at higher risk of being killed by a vehicle, compared with those who are white or Asian or Pacific Islander. And, current traffic light timings are typically set according to the average walking speed of a person without physical disabilities under age 65 — creating potentially dangerous situations for older pedestrians and people with disabilities.

Keep reading for more — including insight into the future of pedestrian safety as autonomous vehicles become increasingly common on U.S. roads.

Why pedestrian crashes happen and demographic risk trends

Recent research has identified several characteristics of intersections where vehicle-pedestrian crashes are more likely. A peer-reviewed analysis published in August 2022 used pedestrian crossing data from July 2017 to June 2018 at 1,606 intersections with traffic signals in Utah to predict crash counts at those crossings over a decadelong period.

The authors predict more pedestrian crashes at intersections with heavy foot and vehicle traffic. Other factors that worsened pedestrian safety included long crossing distances, intersections where right-on-red turns were allowed, commercial or vacant land nearby and communities where higher percentages of pedestrians have a physical disability or are racial or ethnic minorities, among other factors.

Uncontrolled crosswalks, those without a traffic signal or stop sign, generally “correspond to higher pedestrian crash rates, often due to inadequate pedestrian crossing accommodations,” according to a 2018 guidance document for local transportation agencies produced by the Federal Highway Administration.

Other recent, comprehensive research indicates Black and Hispanic pedestrians are more likely than white pedestrians and Asian or Pacific Islander pedestrians to be killed by a vehicle.

The authors of a September 2020 paper published in BMC Public Health find that from 2009 to 2016, there were 376,417 hospitalizations related to pedestrian-vehicle crashes, amounting to $1.13 billion in estimated hospital costs yearly. Overall, the authors report more than 47,000 people are injured in pedestrian crashes each year in the U.S.

The mortality rate was highest for Black pedestrians, at 2.78 per 100,000 people nationally. The rate for Hispanic pedestrians was 2.07, followed by white pedestrians at 1.67 and Asian or Pacific Islander pedestrians at 1.44. The hospital admission rate per 100,000 people was 15.62 for Black pedestrians, 13.00 for white pedestrians, 11.82 for Hispanic pedestrians and 8.27 for Asian or Pacific Islander pedestrians.

Hospital stays were longer and medical costs were higher for Black and Hispanic pedestrians compared with white pedestrians.

“Our results also align with previous research that has established links between race and inequities in safety and accessibility of transportation, including walking, and neighborhood social inequities, traffic volumes, road design, and road traffic injuries,” the authors write.

Recent research also suggests historically Black neighborhoods may lack crosswalks. The author of an April 2022 peer-reviewed paper uses satellite mapping to identify which San Francisco neighborhoods have crosswalks and which don’t.

There are about 6,400 intersections in San Francisco, and 58% of them have painted crosswalks, the author finds. Neighborhoods in the northern half of the city were more likely to have crosswalks than neighborhoods in the southern half.

The author closely examines 1,000 intersections in four neighborhoods with varying demographic characteristics. Just over half of intersections had crosswalks in Bayview, a historically Black neighborhood, compared with over two-thirds of intersections with crosswalks in Pacific Heights, a majority-white neighborhood.

A future consideration for pedestrian safety is whether a human or an autonomous system is operating an oncoming vehicle. By 2035, some 17% of new cars sold may have advanced autonomous driving systems, according to a conservative estimate from a January 2023 report from McKinsey & Company.

There is at least one recent paper that looks at real-world autonomous driving data and intersection interactions. The authors of peer-reviewed research published in February 2023 use 1,500 hours of sensor data from autonomous cars in Canada, the U.S. and Singapore to assess how self-driving vehicles approach people walking or riding bikes.

They report that autonomous vehicles making right turns are riskiest for pedestrians, while left turns are riskiest for bicyclists.

“The task of keeping active road users safe, while tricky in some situations, can be improved by more cautious [autonomous vehicle] behavior, a better ability to interpret active road user intentions, and a better understanding of the specific risky scenarios,” the authors write.

Safety measures for older pedestrians

Federal guidelines recommend that transportation agencies calculate how much time to give pedestrians to cross intersections that have traffic lights using an average walking speed of 3.5 feet per second. If pedestrians who walk slower or use wheelchairs routinely cross particular intersections, the Federal Highway Administration recommends transportation agencies use a walking speed of less than 3.5 feet per second.

Observational research indicates it’s unlikely older pedestrians can cross a street at a speed of 3.5 feet per second. A 2017 study published in Innovation in Aging found that among a sample of 1,191 people over age 60 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, nearly 96% walked slower than 3.5 feet per second.

An October 2019 paper in Accident Analysis and Prevention examines pedestrian crashes in Los Angeles from 2015 to 2017, specifically 2,471 crashes with pedestrians over age 65 and 11,373 crashes with pedestrians under age 65. The author identifies several infrastructure improvements that can improve safety for older pedestrians.

These include raised medians — islands in the center of a road that separate traffic, giving pedestrians a defined, safe place to stop while crossing wider roads. Three-way intersections are also safer for older pedestrians because they feature “less complex configuration and traffic flow” compared with four-way intersections. Tree-lined streets also help, as they may protect pedestrians while “providing pedestrians and drivers with a clear definition of roadways and sidewalks,” the author writes.

However, crosswalks make intersections safer for pedestrians under age 65, not those over age 65, a finding which “seems to reflect the fact that elderly pedestrians are discouraged from crossing roads and avoid jaywalking at the intersections with missing crosswalks,” the author writes. Likewise, decorative crosswalks — for example, those painted for Pride month — seem to benefit younger pedestrians more than older pedestrians, according to the paper.

Research on crosswalk design

Transportation agencies may rely on a variety of high- and low-tech tools to improve pedestrian safety at crosswalks, including lighting, video cameras, signs and flags.

A June 2020 nationwide review of research published in the 2000s and 2010s and conducted by researchers at the Louisiana Transportation Research Center finds the most common lighting treatments are overhead lights, in-road flashing lights and lights on bollards, which are short metal or concrete posts sometimes used to separate oncoming traffic or to define sidewalks.

Several factors, such as speeding and poor lighting, contribute to pedestrian crashes, the literature review finds. The authors find few studies on how adding lighting affects vehicle crashes, and none on how new lights affected pedestrian crash numbers.

Studies that examine driver and pedestrian behavior show crosswalk lighting makes drivers more likely to yield to pedestrians — and pedestrians more aware of their surroundings.

Other studies based on models aimed at predicting the probability of crashes at crosswalks “reveal that providing adequate lighting at midblock and intersection crosswalks is associated with lower probability of pedestrian fatalities and severe injuries,” the authors write.

Existing law enforcement cameras at intersections may make crosswalks safer for pedestrians. The authors of a March 2022 paper in the Journal of Safety Research studied four crosswalks without traffic lights in Nanjing, China. They learned that when cameras were present, fewer drivers drove aggressively — for example, speeding up toward an intersection and nearly hitting crossing pedestrians. 

There are lower-cost options for transportation agencies that want make crosswalks safer where they live. An August 2019 paper in the journal Sustainability examines if crossing flags at intersections affect whether drivers yield to pedestrians.

The authors write that crossing flags are “brightly colored, typically plastic, reusable flags” pedestrians carry across the roadway then leave in a bucket on the other side. In examining 160 crossings in Las Vegas, those with flags were less likely to have drivers go through a crosswalk when a pedestrian was already in the roadway, and more likely to yield to a pedestrian waiting on the sidewalk.

Gateways are another low-cost option for improving pedestrian safety. These are inexpensive, reflective signs several feet tall meant to alert drivers approaching a crosswalk.

The authors of a June 2020 paper in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis studied gateways in Three Rivers, Michigan, concluding that “this type of set up would be ideal for a ‘Main Street’ setting where there is a downtown area with a high pedestrian and vehicle traffic count with several crosswalks. The gateway intervention could be deployed at the first intersection of each way of travel, therefore creating a corridor of safe crosswalks for that stretch of roadway.”

The news media and pedestrian safety

An experimental study published in December 2019 in the journal Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives examines whether news coverage of traffic crashes affects how readers assign blame for those crashes — was it the driver’s fault, the pedestrian’s, or due to something else?

“The field of media studies has consistently demonstrated that news coverage meaningfully shapes public perceptions,” the authors write. For their experiment, the authors recruited a nationally representative sample of 999 people and divided them into three groups, each assigned to read different versions of a fictional, local news article about a vehicle-pedestrian crash.

The first version of the article insinuated the pedestrian was at fault. It used the term “accident” and phrasing such as “a pedestrian struck by a car,” and noted the pedestrian was “wearing dark clothing” when “he was struck.”

The second version was driver-focused. It used the term “crash,” reported the “driver striking a pedestrian,” and omitted what the pedestrian was wearing “when the driver struck him with his car.”

For the third article, the authors use a “thematic” framing. The article grounds the particular crash within the theme of vehicle-pedestrian crashes. There is more detail on where the crash happened, with the pedestrian “attempting to cross Main Street between a bus stop and the Walgreens.” It adds context: “This is the eighth death of a pedestrian in the city this year, an increase of 20% from last year at this time” and notes there have been three recent pedestrian deaths on that stretch of Main Street.

The authors write that “shifting from a pedestrian-focused to a driver-focused text increased perceived blame for the driver. In turn, shifting to a thematically-framed text slightly reduced blame on the driver and increased blame on ‘other’ factors.”

They recommend journalists focus on the crash location and situation and avoid using language that may, inadvertently, assign blame to either the driver or pedestrian. They also encourage journalists to note whether a particular crash was a one-off or part of a trend.  

Further reading

When vehicles hit people

Active Road User Interactions With Autonomous Vehicles: Proactive Safety Assessment
Abdul Razak Alozi and Mohamed Hussein. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, February 2023.

Examining Pedestrian Crash Frequency, Severity, and Safety in Numbers Using Pedestrian Exposure from Utah Traffic Signal Data
Ahadul Islam, Michelle Mekker and Patrick Singleton. Journal of Transportation Engineering, Part A: Systems, August 2022.

United States Fatal Pedestrian Crash Hot Spot Locations and Characteristics
Robert Schneider, Frank Proulx, Rebecca Sanders and Hamideh Moayyed. The Journal of Transport and Land Use, January 2021,.

Demographic risk trends

Where the Crosswalk Ends: Mapping Crosswalk Coverage via Satellite Imagery in San Francisco
Marcel Moran. Environment and Planning B: Urban Analytics and City Science, April 2022.

Racial Disparities in Pedestrian-Related Injury Hospitalizations in the United States
Cara Hamann, Corinne Peek-Asa and Brandon Butcher. BMC Public Health, September 2020,.

Walking Speed of Older People and Pedestrian Crossing Time
E. Duim, M. Lebrao, Y. Duarte and J.F. Antunes. Innovation in Aging, July 2017.

Crossing infrastructure

Impacts of Enforcement Cameras on Pedestrians’ Risk Perception and Drivers’ Behaviors at Non-Signalized Crosswalks
Haojie Li, et al. Journal of Safety Research, June 2022.

Examining Generalization of Motorist Yielding at an Adjacent Crosswalk with Variations of the Gateway Sign Configuration
Jonathan Hochmuth, Brian Crowley-Koch and Ron Van Houten. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, June 2020.

Impact of Crosswalk Lighting Improvements on Pedestrian Safety — A Literature Review
Elisabeta Mitran, Julius Codjoe and Emmaline Edwards. Louisiana Transportation Research Center, June 2020.

The Impact of Pedestrian Crossing Flags on Driver Yielding Behavior in Las Vegas, NV
Sheila Clark, et al. Sustainability, August 2019.

News coverage

Does News Coverage of Traffic Crashes Affect Perceived Blame and Preferred Solutions? Evidence From an Experiment
Tara Goddard, Kelcie Ralph, Calvin Thigpen and Evan Iacobucci. Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives, December 2019.

About The Author