Keeping pedestrians safe

Carolina and Chapel Hill are working together to prevent vehicle crashes that harm pedestrians.

UNC police officers stop traffic so that pedestrians can cross in front of Student Stores.
UNC Police officers work at a crosswalk on South Road.

Drivers hit pedestrians in crosswalks around Chapel Hill 16 times during the past year.

A surge, some news media say. A silent epidemic, says Carolina transportation safety expert Laura Sandt.

Sandt is director of the Collaborative Sciences Center for Road Safety and the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center and interim co-director of Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center. She researches community-involved health and injury prevention programs and studies pedestrian and bicycle safety, mobility and access.

In response to the increase:

  • Chapel Hill Town Council strengthened Vision Zero, a community-based effort to eliminate the town’s traffic injuries and deaths.
  • Chapel Hill police increased enforcement at crosswalks with a goal of reminding drivers of pedestrian’s rights and the importance of yielding right-of-way.
  • The town installed temporary signage and lights at critical crosswalks, while planning improvements for Estes Drive, Homestead Road and the Fordham Boulevard sidepath.

Carolina experts on pedestrian safety and engaging the community have joined the effort. HSRC staff are helping the town by advising on safety, mobility and health; helping develop the Vision Zero strategy; assisting with prioritizing pedestrian and bike safety improvements; sharing research on the effectiveness of different safety treatments and evaluating the results of measures.

Laura Sandt

Laura Sandt

University staff serving on Vision Zero committees are Executive Director of Off-Campus Student Life and Community Partnerships Aaron Bachenheimer, Director of Transportation and Parking Cheryl Stout, acting Police Chief Rahsheem Holland and Sandt.

Pedestrian-vehicle crashes increased 53% nationwide between 2009 and 2018, according to a CSCRS report. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s most recent report from 2019 data shows a jump in pedestrian deaths of almost 5%.

“While those close to pedestrian and bicycle issues have been discussing the trends for a long time, in the broader public it’s a very silent epidemic,” said Sandt. “Since about 2008, we’ve seen a V shape to pedestrian fatalities nationwide. Fatalities were trending down from about 2000 to 2008. Since 2008, we’ve seen a pretty steady increase in the national pedestrian fatality data.”

What’s causing the increase?

Carolina’s research provides context and background on driver-pedestrian crashes. Erosion of drivers’ abilities comes from health issues, the effects of multiple diseases and disorders on a person, aging, opioid use and bigger and faster vehicles on roadways designed for increasingly high speeds.

What role distracted drivers play is harder to measure, as police reports that document pedestrian incidents don’t often specify the role of distraction in the lead up to a crash, and driver accounts may not be reliable.

“We certainly have a sense that distraction may be affecting drivers, especially with all the devices inside cars that can quickly overwhelm your cognitive load,” Sandt said. “Dashboards with GPS and other controls take your eyes off the road and demand mental attention.”

“It’s easy to adopt a windshield mentality, to think of yourself as a driver and to forget about the people all around you until you are the one walking. When you’re in the car, you don’t always realize how fast you’re going or how uncomfortable that speed and noise and vibration may make the people walking.”  — Laura Sandt, interim co-director, UNC Highway Safety Research Center

But speed, Sandt said, underlies all the contributing factors. “Cars are more powerful than they used to be. They can accelerate faster. They go faster. The roads allow faster speeds than in the past. When people are aging or they’re distracted, their reaction time is much more slow. When they’re going faster, they have less capacity to react and respond.”

Plus, pedestrians cannot react quickly enough to vehicles often driven well beyond the speed limit. The higher speeds result in more serious injuries, according to a Collaborative Sciences Center for Road Safety study.

North Carolina’s data on pedestrian injury and death reflect the same upward trend, Sandt said.

Chapel Hill over the past five years has stayed consistently between 15 and 25 pedestrian-car crashes. The crashes happen in places consistent with trends and the research, Sandt said. These are roads with higher volume and higher speeds, such as MLK Jr. Boulevard, Fordham Boulevard and Highway 54.

Vision Zero

By joining the Vision Zero effort, Carolina is trying to keep local pedestrians safe. Besides her role on the local executive committee, Sandt is on a committee that gives technical guidance based on crash data and looks for funding to support the coalition’s programs.

A University-based team from the NC Vision Zero Leadership Institute is providing training, coaching and meeting facilitation for Chapel Hill and coalitions in Charlotte, Greensboro, Greenville, Durham and other communities across the state. The team includes HSRC’s Seth LaJeunesse, a senior research associate and assistant director of the National Center for Safe Routes to School, and Stephen Heiny, a research associate. It also works closely with Carolina’s Injury Prevention Research Center.

“They are coaching them on how their Vision Zero coalition can build better plans, engage more partners and do self-assessment to understand their data and practice needs and opportunities,” Sandt said.

Sandt offers these observations:

  • Speed is the critical issue. “Many people think that 35 miles per hour is a low speed, but it’s absolutely not. Our studies show drivers yield for pedestrians at 35 at a crosswalk 4% of the time. At 25 miles per hour, yielding increases dramatically,” she said. “Going 35 in a car doesn’t feel fast, but the likelihood of you seeing a pedestrian out of your periphery goes down, the likelihood of you being able to stop in time for a pedestrian goes way down, compared to going 20 or 25.”
  • Pedestrians are paying attention. Some pedestrians do look at devices while crossing streets, especially when they feel safe, but that’s not the problem. “Studies to measure distraction are difficult to conduct, but the sum of the evidence indicates that pedestrian distraction is not the critical issue driving up crash rates,” Sandt said.
  • Pedestrians have a right to mobility. “Part of the conversation around Vision Zero is that pedestrian mobility is a human right,” Sandt said. “We recognize that everybody, whether they’re walking or driving, has certain human limitations. They can only move so fast, see so much, react so quickly. So the onus is on the system designers to provide layers of protection. The system designers are the roadway designers and the vehicle designers.”

Sandt said that effective measures include:

  • Speed management. Research shows a clear connection between speed and seriousness of injury.
  • Improving lighting at crosswalks. “There’s a trend nationally and in the state with crashes happening in low-light conditions.”

Carolina’s employees and students can help the town plan for pedestrian safety by suggesting specific improvements and joining the conversation, Sandt said.

Learn more about the HSRC and its work, such as the state’s pedestrian injury Data Dashboard it helped create.