Marked Crosswalks and the Raquel Nelson Case

In the by turns tragic and outrageous case of Raquel Nelson, I keep seeing a call for “marked crosswalks” to be installed on Austell Road, near the bus stop where pedestrians naturally want to cross (rather than walk the estimated 2/3 of a mile to the stop).

But I’m unclear what they’re calling for — is it a traffic signal with a marked crosswalk?

Or just a marked crosswalk? Which we intuitively think would be better than nothing — or would it?

From what I’ve read on marked crosswalks, they precisely begin to lose effectiveness on roads with at least four lanes, and volumes of upwards of 30,000 vehicles per day. Not to mention a “posted” speed of 45 mph.

To quote the FHWA:

Thus, installing a marked crosswalk at an already undesirable crossing location (e.g., wide, high-volume street) may increase the chance of a pedestrian crash occurring at such a site if a few at-risk pedestrians are encouraged to cross where other adequate crossing facilities are not provided. This explanation might be evidenced by the many calls to traffic engineers from citizens who state, “Please install a marked crosswalk so that we can cross the dangerous street near our house.” Unfortunately, simply installing a marked crosswalk without other more substantial crossing facilities often does not result in the majority of motorists stopping and yielding to pedestrians, contrary to the expectations of many pedestrians.


P.S. One of the more dismal comments I saw in this case was from anonymous web poster, along the lines of: “Please install a pedestrian bridge and fix this dangerous street!” Sigh.

This entry was posted on Thursday, July 28th, 2011 at 9:48 am and is filed under Pedestrians. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

21 Responses to “Marked Crosswalks and the Raquel Nelson Case”

  1. Jason Tucker Says:

    Is this a place where they install such things as pedestrian crossing signals? They’re common where I live, but the push-button-make-yellow-light-flash signals only work if people abide by them. And 4 lanes at 45mph is probably asking a bit much. What about putting School-bus style “STOP” signs on public buses, allowing them to stop traffic, at least in the same-direction lanes? I can’t help but think that a huge city bus waiting while someone crossed the road would increase visibility where required. That’s probably asking a bit much…

    Having said that, some places (Atlantic Canada), people are almost itching for an excuse to stop and let pedestrians cross the road. Even if you’re walking around the corner, cars stop and wait for you in anticipation. It’s aggravating.

  2. Kevin Love Says:

    This seems like a law enforcement issue. Here in Ontario, car drivers stop right away whenever a pedestrian points across the street at a crosswalk.

    This isn’t because of some innate moral goodness. It is because failing to do so gets them charged by police, summoned to a mandatory court appearance (therefore forced to take a day off work) and subjected to a fine of up to $500. With a minimum fine of $150. Law enforcement is such that there is a very high probability of being charged if one is in the habit of breaking this law.

    Source: Section 140 of The Highway Traffic Act at:

  3. Michiel Says:

    Marked crosswalks suggest safety, but can be very dangerous. In the town of Oosterhout in the Netherlands at one street three people died in crashes within nine days at marked crosswalks.

  4. Brian G. Says:

    This issue has come before the bike/ped commission on which I serve; it’s even more difficult when the people petitioning for a crosswalk are disabled folks who use wheelchairs. One hates to tell them that they have to roll a mile out of their way to cross the street at the nearest intersection, but the engineers are probably right to refuse to put a crosswalk in any location where people want it.

    So, the question this raises for me: why _not_ a signalized crossing? Can we sacrifice vehicle speed and convenience, instead of pedestrian safety? Seems like a good trade to me.

    And why is it “dismal” to ask for a bridge? Simply because bridges are expensive? Or am I missing something?

  5. Sue Says:

    I am with you Tom. This road sounds a lot like so many arterials in suburban areas – high speed, multi-lane, few crossing opportunities – the standard ‘big mac’ that we keep building across the US. These roads need more than just a crosswalk or signal spot improvement -especially when they are in suburban and urban communities. They need a complete retrofit for the length of the corridor. In so many cases I have seen, the traffic volumes are really not even high enough to justify the number of travel lanes. A challenge I see often is lack of flexible funding options to do the kinds of retrofits needed on these types of roads. I have seen cities and towns have to pull together as many as seven different funding sources because of their various limitations in order to make the necessary improvements on a corridor like this one – crazy complicated. I think the recognition of this currently unmet need to retrofit these ‘big mac’ corridors is part of the push for some sort of national complete streets or livable communities type program.

  6. Kevin Love Says:

    Brian – Why on earth should someone who is disabled be forced to roll their wheelchair a mile out of their way? That’s just inhumane. Far better to have proper law enforcement.

    Here in Ontario, motorists know that if they do not stop for a wheelchair user at a crosswalk, there is a very good chance that they will be charged by the police. Then they have to take a day off work to go to court. The judge will give them a good tongue-lashing for endangering a disabled person and almost undoubtably impose the maximum fine of $500.

    Such things as signalized crossings and bridges are far too expensive to use as frequently as people need to cross the street. Paint and signs are cheap. And proper law enforcement pays for itself. We don’t need too many $500 fines to pay for the police and courts to enforce this law.

  7. Scott Says:

    “Unfortunately, simply installing a marked crosswalk without other more substantial crossing facilities often does not result in the majority of motorists stopping and yielding to pedestrians, contrary to the expectations of many pedestrians.”

    But at least SOME motorists will yield and the pedestrians who cross there every day without a crosswalk will be able to do so legally (and, presumably, without being charged with vehicular manslaughter).

  8. Philipp Says:

    Kevin — you write “here in Ontario”, but it sounds like you’ve never been to Toronto. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen dangerous driver behavior at marked crosswalks. The worst is that Toronto drivers are accustomed to passing on the right, especially to avoid getting stuck behind left-turning vehicles. Several times I’ve seen one car stop at a crosswalk to let a pedestrian pass, only to have a second car speed past it on the right and narrowly missing the pedestrian. And I’m not holding my breath for the police to do anything about it, especially under our current mayor who is crusading against what he perceives to be a “war on cars”.

  9. Kevin Love Says:

    Philipp – I live in Toronto. Perhaps in an area serviced by a different police division. I can only report on what I see, which is that crosswalk enforcement is something that I see regularly. And that this results in fairly good behaviour, even when the police are not around.

  10. Matt Says:

    An island (“pedestrian refuge”, I think) in the middle of the road turns a four-lane road into two two-lane roads, which is much easier to cross.

  11. Philipp Says:

    Kevin, I’m sorry, but good driver behavior is not something I’d ever associate with Toronto. I learned driving in Brooklyn, but some of the things I see here in Toronto just blow my mind (for example, backing up into intersections to avoid going around the block, something I see at least once a week)
    On the topic of pedestrian safety, see this map form the Toronto Star:

  12. Opus the Poet Says:

    Perhaps something more concrete to make drivers stop for pedestrians like a physical barrier at the crosswalk? Personally I like the anti-terrorist gates used in DC installed at all marked crosswalks as a good use of my tax dollars for the R&D for the motorized anti-terrorist gates designed to stop (permanently) a fully loaded semi truck and trailer.

  13. Kevin Love Says:


    It is unfortunate that you have had such bad experiences. I note that the Government of Ontario reports that Ontario has the safest roads in North America. See:

  14. Eileen Says:

    There was an unmarked crosswalk pretty close to where Raquel Nelson and the rest of the pedestrian group that night crossed — most likely not used because they didn’t know it would have made a difference in whether she’d been charged (though probably not in whether her son was killed). I don’t think marking it would’ve made it safer without regular enforcement.

    I think the simplest solution is to rewrite all laws so that pedestrians always have the right of way, except against emergency vehicles responding to an emergency, and then enforce with fines and automatic license suspension (and community service or prison + license revocation for repeat offenders).

  15. Mike Chalkley Says:

    45mph is far too fast for roads where pedestrians have to cross.
    I agree fully with the enforcement comments above – driver attitude can only be changed if there is real dis-incentive to break the law.
    How about income-linked fines for motoring offences such as they have in Switzerland?

  16. mike Says:

    Here in the UK, ‘zebra’ crossings are well respected, with most cars stopping if they see a pedestrian about to cross. These crossing are frequently unsignalled (ie, just paint), though signalled crossings are common too.

    The police rarely enforce driver behaviour – it’s simply an accepted norm that cars stop for peds on zebra crossings.

    For that reason, a motorist who hit a person using one of these crossings would be in big trouble: large fine, suspended licence, potential community or jail term.

    Overtaking on a crossing is expressly forbidden and you’d almost certainly go to jail if you ran someone over in that way.

  17. Joyce Says:

    I have seen widely different crosswalk behavior by motorists in different U.S. states (though maybe it’s actually determined at the municipal level, I don’t know). California vs. Tennessee and Missouri: no comparison!

    My gloomy foreboding is that the only thing that will be done to “improve safety” on this road is that the bus stop in question will be removed.

  18. Sally Flocks Says:

    To increase safety at this location, a crosswalk would need to be supplemented by a pedestrian-activated HAWK signal, Rectangular Rapid Flash Beacons, and/or embedded crosswalk lighting. Without these, motorists traveling over 35 mph are unlikely to stop at marked crosswalks. The bus stop should also be relocated to where the median is 16 feet wide. It is currently located adjacent to a section of the road where a left turn lane had reduced the median width to just 3 feet.

  19. gpsman Says:

    Crosswalks seem obsolete. Just another thing busy motorists have no time to look for.

    Seems best to not suggest any ROW to the defenseless pedestrian. Let people cross wherever, to match traffic doing whatever, whenever.

    It’s every man for himself out there. Restricting pedestrians to crosswalks is a handicap. Anyone can run over one in a crosswalk.

  20. Murray Says:

    @ Brian G, the reason that bridges are dismal is that they often (almost always) require people to walk up stairs, requiring extra effort. Most planners who consider human behaviour realises that humans are essentially lazy and will often cross a busy road “at level’ rather than use a bridge.

    Unless they are well integrated into the environment and convenient to use, bridges aren’t well used.

    It also gives the impression that the movement of cars is more important than the movement of people.

  21. Andy Hayes Says:

    In 1967, I moved from the east to sunny California. Two things about California driving astonished me – right turn on red, and the fact that everyone – and I mean everyone, I even saw a group of Hell’s Angels doing it once – stopped for pedestrians at cross streets, even where there was no marked crosswalk. This was true in both LA and the Bay area. I moved away in the 70s, and didn’t return til 1988, when apparently everything had changed – Cal drivers paid no more attention to peds than NY or Pittsburgh drivers did.

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