Eugene Bourquin, DHA, COMS
Nearly every injury, death, or too-close-for-comfort moment in a crosswalk is caused by a driver or drivers not yielding. Therefore, it is helpful to understand the variables that influence drivers to yield more of less, and especially to know the things that pedestrians can do to make it more likely that a driver will stop for them.
Even though there are laws that give pedestrians a right of way when at or in a crosswalk, and white cane laws that give right-of-way to pedestrians who are blind or low vision, it is important to note that these laws do not permit any pedestrian to violate traffic rules and regulations. Like drivers, we are safer when we cross following these regulations and abiding by pedestrian signals.
We know a lot about drivers’ behaviors. There has been a great deal of research in the traffic management professional literature and recently a good deal learned in experimentation within the Orientation and Mobility field.
The facts are that drivers may not yield to pedestrians too often. Yielding behavior of motorists at places with and without traffic signals has been found to vary, with as little as 17 percent of motorists yielding to pedestrians waiting to cross (Fitzpatrick et al., 2006; Geruschat & Hassan, 2005).
Factors that Influence Drivers’ Yielding
Many factors can affect the likelihood of a driver yielding to a pedestrian. Let us consider first those that are often or never under the direct control of pedestrians. The strongest variable we know of is the speed of the vehicle. Others include how well drivers know and obey the laws, and the enforcement efforts to encourage compliance. A drivers’ expectation of pedestrians at a crosswalk is another factor, as is the number of pedestrians crossing together during any specific time. Sometimes environmental features such as a painted crosswalk, select signage, or road conditions and geometry cause drivers to yield at different rates. And of course, some drivers may be distracted or be under the influence of an intoxicant.
Factors under the Control of Pedestrians
While typically pedestrians with full vision may use various strategies to negotiate safer crossings, such as eye contact or behaviors based on distal visual information, pedestrians who are blind or have low vision can also use strategies designed to change drivers’ behavior to their favor. Being able to assess and then alter the risk from drivers are important skills to employ.
The human visual cognition system has limits, such that even compliant and careful drivers will not always be aware of a pedestrian’s presence at a corner or in a crosswalk. Researchers have found that some commonsense ideas did not actually substantially cause drivers to yield. A pedestrian waving a bright orange flag or wearing a reflective orange vest did not get yields more often from drivers (Bourquin, Wall Emerson, & Sauerburger, 2011). One important fact to note, though, is that in repeated experiments, a prominent cane display at the crosswalk did not significantly cause drivers to yield any more often than when the pedestrian did not have a cane (Bourquin, Wall Emerson, Sauerburger, & Barlow, 2014, 2018).
O&M specialists and pedestrians should be aware that the color of the cane can influence drivers’ responses: a white cane had approximately 46% more yields than a green cane, 37% more yields than a yellow cane, and 22% more yields than a black cane (Bourquin, Wall Emerson, Sauerburger, & Barlow, 2017).
The good news is that pedestrian who are blind or have low vision do have strategies found to work. What creates substantial influence on drivers’ behaviors, causing them to yield much more often, include the following suggestions listed in increasing order of effectiveness:
- Cane movement: sometimes called “cane-flagging,” the pedestrian determines it is time to cross, they swing the cane laterally (sideways) affecting an arc to waist level, or elevate the cane up in the air and forward.
- A Hand-up: when the pedestrian determines it is time to cross, they extend their arm and hand up and outward with fingers fully extended and the palm facing the potentially oncoming driver, in a posture indicating Stop.
- Body movement: sometimes called a “reversible-step,” when the pedestrian determines it is time to cross, the individual takes one safe step forward into the street and may step back if they become aware of any risk. This can be done with a cane-flag at the same time.
In a 2014 published study, comparing these techniques to a cane display (the pedestrian holds a long white cane at the curb, not extended, so it is visible to drivers), cane-flagging increased drivers’ yielding from about 44 to 61%; a hand up to 74%, and a reversible step to 91% with turning vehicles at a traffic-signal-controlled intersection (Bourquin, Wall Emerson, Sauerburger, & Barlow, 2014). Of course, the rate of yielding for any individual at a particular location is not predictable, but multiple studies strongly indicate that the techniques will consistently influence drivers.
While the studies were done using mobility canes, we have limited data that applies to service animals, hereafter referred to as dog guides. What we do know is that in general, dog guides seem to garner less yielding from drivers, and most of the above techniques are not easily adapted to dog guide users (Guth, Ashmead, Long, Wall, & Ponchillia, 2005), with the possible exception of the hand-up strategy.
There is no known research about bicyclists’ yielding behavior when encountering pedestrians who are blind or have low vision. This means, there is no data to determine if bicyclists are more or less likely to yield to pedestrians with visual disabilities as they make a street crossing and utilizing the above strategies. Despite the lack of direct evidence, it might be extrapolated that the variables which influence drivers to yield are applicable to bicyclists when they are approaching a pedestrian who is blind or has low vision.
In summary, in situations and places when a pedestrian feels that drivers are less likely to yield to them as they cross, they can include the above strategies, using their cane and body movement, to decrease that risk.
Bourquin, E., Wall Emerson, R., & Sauerburger, D. (2011). Conditions that influence drivers’ yielding behavior for uncontrolled intersections. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 105(11), 760-769.
Bourquin, E., Wall Emerson, R., Sauerburger, D., & Barlow, J. (2014). Conditions that influence drivers’ yielding behavior in turning vehicles at intersections with traffic signal controls. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness.
Bourquin, E., Wall Emerson, R., Sauerburger, D., & Barlow, J. (2017). The effect of the color of a long cane used by individuals who are visually impaired on the yielding behavior of drivers. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 111(5).
Fitzpatrick, K., Turner, S., Brewer, M., Carlson, P., Ullman, B., Trout, N., Park, E. S., Whitacre, J., Lalani, N., & Lord, D. (2006). TCRP Report 112/NCHRP Report 562: Improving pedestrian safety at unsignalized crossings. Transportation Research Board of the National Academies, Washington, D.C.
Geruschat, D. R., & Hassan, S. E. (2005). Driver behavior in yielding to sighted and blind pedestrians at roundabouts. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 99(5), 286-302.
Guth, D., Ashmead, D., Long, R., Wall, R., & Ponchillia, P. (2005). Blind and sighted pedestrians’ judgments of gaps in traffic at roundabouts. Human Factors, 47(2), 314-331.