Public Comment

Commentary: Crossing at Corners Might Be Dangerous

By Marc Sapir
Tuesday January 29, 2008

To treat the spate of pedestrian traffic deaths and accidents as a uniquely Berkeley problem is blind provincialism at its worst as the problem is widespread throughout the country. There have been system change efforts to make Berkeley streets safer including lowering of speed limits, protruding peninsulas to shorten the crossing time and distance, trials of flags and flashing ground lights, the change to one lane of traffic each way on Marin, the bicycle boulevards and so forth. Many people have expressed their opinions as to whether these and other changes contribute to or alleviate the risk to pedestrians. Like one letter writer I have no doubt that talking on cell phones while driving contributes to many accidents and there is ample data from the transportation safety people to back that up. Cell phone driving has to be stopped by state laws that are highly promoted and enforced. But, beyond that hazard (and drunk driving) do we understand the major causes of such accidents? 

For as long as I can remember we have trained our children to be safe by crossing the street in the crosswalk at an intersection. I believe that this paradigm is probably wrong and contributes to accidents. One Planet commentator mentioned the support posts in all cars that can obscure forward lateral view as one begins a corner turn. I can remember, not once but several times, being scared out of my wits because I began a turn seeing no pedestrian and found myself almost into the crosswalk when I became aware of a pedestrian in the crosswalk. No matter how you sit there will always be a brief blind spot to the side. And if you happen to be glancing toward the side at the moment a pedestrian is behind that post you may risk injuring them.  

Besides the post problem there is a more obvious one that explains why drivers can not and do not spend enough time looking thoroughly for pedestrians when turning. Upon commencing a turn, whether left or right, a driver has to be concerned with oncoming traffic and assuring it creates no problem for a turn, and also lateral traffic for the same reason. This is a necessary precaution even when one has a green light. In this process, looking ahead into the turn is a competing priority for the driver’s attention, even if the driver is stopped for the turn. In rainy weather, moreover, the lateral field of vision of the driver is further restricted by the field of the windshield wipers.  

The fact that reckless and drunk drivers hit pedestrians at a higher rate tends to obscure the risks that pedestrians face from the problems of normal driving patterns. It seems likely that increasing the number of cross walks placed mid-block rather than at intersections can reduce pedestrian risk. This ought to be considered citywide here or in another urban environment so that the change can be promoted publicly to local drivers and the results evaluated. 

In Berkeley we have several safe and successful midblock crosswalks, such as in front of the old University Theater on University Avenue and in front of the French Hotel and the Shattuck post office on North Shattuck Avenue. Drivers tend to be very aware of these locations and to behave appropriately. But, if enhancements were necessary, mid-block crosswalks can be easily supplemented with push buttons for pedestrians that activate a large blinking orange warning light 100 feet before the crosswalks. In that setting a driver looking forward faces no competing risks for attention.  

A portion of the deaths at intersections may result from competing factors for driver attention. We can not afford to place pedestrians as a secondary consideration for drivers. Commentaries about inappropriate behaviors of citizens—whether pedestrians or drivers—tend to obscure the reality that crosswalks at traffic intersections do not seem to protect pedestrians as they are intended to do. There should be no other perceptual competitors for a driver’s attention than the pedestrian as each driver approaches a crosswalk. And the lateral blind spot needs to be eliminated as well. For both these reasons, frontal approaches to many or most crosswalks is a rational public safety measure.  


Berkeley resident Marc Sapir is the former director of Retro Poll.