The Invisible Pedestrian

Walk SignalI walked part of the way to work this morning and found myself facing a young woman across a busy intersection while we waited for the traffic signal to change. She was facing me but keeping an eye on the van waiting beside her at the red light signalling a right turn. As I watched the situation unfold I was impressed with this woman's street smarts.

When the light changed to green for the van and to walk for her, she stood her ground instead of stepping into the crosswalk. It's a good thing because the van driver had one hand on the steering wheel, one hand on his cell phone and likely both eyes on the traffic light. She may as well have been invisible.

As soon as the light changed the driver accelerated and turned right without even bothering to shoulder check. Even that should not have mattered had he scanned his environment and considered his situation while he waited. He would have realized that he needed to wait for the pedestrian to cross before he made his turn.

Unlike crosswalks that are not controlled by traffic signals there is no need for the pedestrian to step into the crosswalk before traffic is required to yield. When the walk light comes on, vehicular traffic is required to yield to pedestrians who will use the crosswalk as they have the right of way.

We shook our heads as we passed by each other and she rolled her eyes when I asked what had happened to the requirement to yield to pedestrians. My second thought is that this van was boldly marked with the name of the business it was associated with. This is the kind of advertising that a business would not want!

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Modern times

Something that I first noticed being applied in Montreal back in 2005 on some one-way arterial streets, was the advent of pedestrian 'Walk' signals being activated in advance of the signal allowing a turn. So the 'Go Straight' green arrow for vehicles would happen first, and simultaneously to the 'Walk' signal; after a few seconds (to allow the crosswalk to fill up with pedestrians) this would become a solid green, allowing turning vehicles to then move - but with those pedestrians clearly visible in their path.

These days, here in BC, we're seeing an increasing number of intersections doing something similar, where the 'Walk' signal releases the pedestrians a few seconds before the light goes green to allow vehicle movement.

The bottom line is, generally speaking, drivers do not have collisions with what they've seen. It's what they didn't see - or not soon enough - that they crash into. Including pedestrians ... 

80 years ago ...

Here's a great piece of footage (digitally upgraded) from New York in the 1940's.

Traffic lights were rare back then. And I don't think there were any rules allowing pedestrian right-of-way (never mind traffic lanes).

So without any rules to govern behaviour - other than driving on the right side of the road - we see how many pedestrians choose to cross (european style) mid-block, timing themselves to avoid the vehicles. Meanwhile, other pedestrians - a majority, I reckon - choose to gather in small bunches at intersections, waiting for an opportunity to move en masse when there's a sufficient gap in traffic there.

None of them ever assume a right-of-way though. Which is what keeps them alive and uninjured, remarkably enough!

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