Crossing the Street is Dangerous

The street crossing experience comes down to the behavior of the pedestrian and the motorist as well as the design of the intersection or crossing. The behavior of motorists (whether, and how, they stop for a pedestrian) is influenced by a variety of factors, including the speed at which they are traveling. A motorist traveling at a slower rate of speed has more time to see, react, and stop for a pedestrian than someone who is going fast. The number of pedestrians walking may also influence the motorist—in general, more people walking raises motorist awareness of the likelihood of a pedestrian crossing the street.

This section focuses on the physical and design details that influence street crossings. Some general principles for good crossings include:

  • The fewer lanes, the better: reducing the amount of exposure a pedestrian experiences will generally reduce the likelihood of a collision
  • Reduce the likelihood of multiple threat collisions: when there are two lanes traveling in one direction, install a stop bar to encourage motorists to stop back far enough from where the pedestrian crosses to see if one motorist is not going to stop
  • Where possible install a median island so that the crossing can be split into two
  • Restrict parking in advance of all legal crosswalks
  • Check that lighting is adequate at crossings

Improve crossing visibility

Before you say that no crosswalks exist in your neighborhood, know that legal crosswalks exist at all public street intersections, unless otherwise signed, regardless of whether they are marked or unmarked. For a crosswalk to legally exist at a midblock location, it must be marked. Pedestrians have the same legal protections and rights when crossing in marked or unmarked crosswalks.

Marked crosswalks are used to guide pedestrians to the best place to cross, to serve as a warning to motorists of pedestrian crossing activity, and to remind motorists to stop or yield to pedestrians. They are also helpful at complex intersections to show exactly where to cross the street. Jurisdictions have different policies on marked crosswalks. In general, marked crosswalks are not as commonly used on local streets inside neighborhoods except when installed as part of a "Safe Route to School Plan" for children, although some cities regularly mark crosswalks at most locations. Crosswalks are often marked at busy intersections, near schools or universities, at transit stops, and at commercial or retail establishments.

More than a marked crosswalk may be needed

While marked crosswalks have been shown to be successful in encouraging pedestrians to cross at a specific location, the results are mixed with respect to getting drivers to drive slower or safer, or to be more courteous to a pedestrian. On higher speed and busy, multi-lane streets, more substantial facilities are usually needed to provide safer crossings for pedestrians. These measures can include a raised median (pedestrian crossing) island, parking restrictions, advanced warning signs or pavement markings, brighter nighttime lighting, or other devices that can slow traffic down at the crossing or improve driver expectancy of the crossing. A zebra, ladder, or continental crosswalk marking pattern makes crosswalks more visible to motorists.

To request a marked crosswalk at a crossing, you need to contact your city or town officials, most likely your city or town traffic engineer, or your city or town council. Before approaching your city or town officials, it's a good idea to acquaint yourself with the literature on crosswalks, links for which are available below. Factors that go in to the decision as to whether or not to mark a crosswalk usually include the roadway and traffic conditions, as well as the number of pedestrians who cross the street, and the location of nearby crossings. Some of these factors are outlined below:

Intersections with existing traffic signals

Marked crosswalks should normally be installed at traffic signals where pedestrians are expected to cross. Pedestrians should be expected to cross from every corner of an intersection unless there are extraordinary and extenuating circumstances that make a part of the intersection unsafe which cannot be mitigated. Marked crosswalks will encourage pedestrians to cross at the traffic signal and discourage motorists from blocking the walking path for pedestrians in the crosswalk. The city may have to install pedestrian crossing signals (if they do not currently exist) and should use highly reflective material for the crosswalk lines. In some cases pedestrian push buttons may also be needed.

Intersections with existing STOP signs

It is helpful to install a marked crosswalk at a crossing controlled by a STOP sign, especially when there is a moderate to high number of pedestrians that use the crossing or if the crossing is near a school or in a business district. Crosswalk markings help discourage stopping vehicles from blocking the walking path across the intersection and they help remind motorists of the presence of pedestrians. Highly reflective material should always be used for the crosswalk lines. Crosswalk lines should be maintained in good condition.

Locations without traffic signals or STOP signs

Installing crosswalks lines alone may not be enough to improve pedestrian safety at mid-block areas and intersections without a stoplight or STOP sign (also known as an "uncontrolled crossing"), especially across wide, high-speed streets.

A national study on whether it is safer to have a marked or unmarked crosswalk at a crossing where no traffic signal or STOP sign is present was recently conducted for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). This study involved analysis of 5 years of pedestrian crashes at 1,000 marked crosswalks and 1,000 matched unmarked comparison sites. The study results revealed that on two-lane roads, the presence of a marked crosswalk alone at an uncontrolled location was associated with no difference in pedestrian crash rate, compared to an unmarked crosswalk. However, on multi-lane roads with traffic volumes above about 12,000 vehicles per day, having a marked crosswalk alone (without other substantial improvements) was associated with a higher pedestrian crash rate (after controlling for other site factors) compared to an unmarked crosswalk. Recommendations and guidelines are provided in the report on the use and placement of marked crosswalks and other crossing measures.

Improvements to Marked Crosswalks

When combined with other pedestrian improvements, properly designed crosswalks at uncontrolled crossings may increase pedestrian safety. For instance, the national study mentioned above found that raised medians provided significantly lower pedestrian crash rates on multi-lane roads, compared to roads with no raised median. Accordingly, properly designed crosswalks should employ a combination design features to maximize pedestrian safety.

Treatments used to make streets easier to cross and crosswalks more visible to motorists include those treatments listed below. Though the following treatments do not work everywhere and should not be viewed as cure-alls due to some cautions (described below) and cost restraints, cities should consider these practices citywide.

Mark crosswalks with highly reflective material

If it is determined that a crosswalk should be marked, then to be visible to motorists, particularly at night, they must be marked with a bright retro-reflective material. Even though granite or cobblestones are aesthetically appealing materials, they are not appropriate as a walking surface or for marking the crosswalk lines. One of the best materials for marking crosswalks is inlay tape, which is ideal for use on new or repaved streets. It is highly reflective, long-lasting, and slip-resistant, and does not require a high level of maintenance. Although initially more costly than paint, both inlay tape and thermoplastic are more cost-effective in the long run.

Raise the crossing above street level

PEDSAFE states that raised pedestrian crossings can encourage motorists to drive slower at the crossing, which will make them more likely to yield to crossing pedestrians. On one street in Cambridge, MA, the number of motorists who yielded to pedestrians crossing at crosswalks went from approximately 10 percent before installation of the raised crosswalks to 55 percent after the installations. Additionally, according to an FHWA study, The Effects of Traffic Calming Measures on Pedestrian and Motorist Behavior, raised crosswalks increase pedestrian visibility and the likelihood that the driver yields to pedestrians especially when combined with an overhead flashing light. Raised crosswalks should not be used on emergency routes, bus routes, or high speed streets. Drainage of storm water runoff and snow plowing considerations may also be a concern with raised crosswalks. They are most appropriate on low speed local or neighborhood streets.

Narrow the roadway

Studies have found that roadway narrowing treatments (such as raised medians, curb extensions, road diets, etc.) can increase pedestrian safety. These treatments reduce the distance pedestrians have to cross the street, thereby decreasing their exposure to moving motor vehicles. An FHWA study, Safety Effects of Marked Versus Unmarked Crosswalks at Uncontrolled Locations, found that the presence of a raised median or crossing island can significantly reduce the likelihood of pedestrian crashes since the median can serve as a refuge for crossing pedestrians and may cause motorists to drive slower since the roadway appears less wide open. Curb extensions provide pedestrians a safe place to stand and view oncoming traffic before crossing. Road diets involve restriping the street to reduce the number of travel lanes. The left-over space can be used for shoulders, bike lanes, or a median area for left turns or raised pedestrian crossing islands. This is significantly less expensive than rebuilding streets.

Improving signs and/or lights or signals in advance, or above the crosswalk

Warning signs and lights can help alert unfamiliar motorists to the presence of pedestrians who may be crossing the street. Warning signs should be used at locations where drivers may not typically expect pedestrians to cross, and at locations where school children frequently cross. Signs that integrate LED lights and/or other types of lighting such as flashers can also increase the awareness of drivers to the presence of pedestrians and, used in combination with other crosswalk treatments, can increase pedestrian safety.

Warning signs can provide important information to improve road safety if used properly, consistently, and if they are not over-used. If motorists know what to expect, there is a greater chance that they will behave properly. Signs should be used judiciously, as overuse breeds noncompliance and disrespect. Too many signs may also create visual clutter and important signs can get lost.

To request a sign for a crossing in your neighborhood, you should contact your city officials. Read below to find out what types of signs or lights could be useful for a difficult crossing in your neighborhood.

Sign basics

Traffic signs can be either "regulatory", "warning", or "guide" signs. Regulatory signs, such as STOP, YIELD, or turn restrictions require certain driver actions and can be enforced. Warning signs can provide helpful information, especially to motorists and pedestrians who are unfamiliar with the area. Guide signs provide direction or location information. Examples of signs that may help pedestrians include warning signs for motorists, warning signs for pedestrians, pedestrian push button signs, NO TURN ON RED signs, and guide signs. Advance pedestrian warning signs should be used where pedestrian crossings may not be expected by motorists, especially if there is a high number of motorists who are unfamiliar with the area. A new, brighter fluorescent yellow/green (FYG) color is allowed for use in pedestrian, bicycle, and school warning signs. All signs should be periodically checked to make sure that they are in good condition, free from graffiti, reflective at night, and continue to serve a purpose.

Overhead signs

One study, the Effects of Innovative Pedestrian Signs at Unsignalized Locations: A Tale of Three Treatments on the use of an overhead sign in Seattle reading "Crosswalk" showed that the treatment was effective in encouraging motorists to yield to pedestrians and reducing the percentage of pedestrians who ran, aborted, or hesitated while crossing. According to an FHWA study, The Effects of Traffic Calming Measures on Pedestrian and Motorist Behavior, raised crosswalks combined with an overhead flashing light both increased pedestrian visibility and the likelihood that the driver yields to pedestrians. A study that examined the effect of crosswalks with a combination of high-visibility treatments (an overhead sign reading "Crosswalk" along with a crossing island and pedestrian crossing sign) on motorist behavior found that drivers were 30 percent to 40 percent more likely to yield to pedestrians at the treated locations when compared to untreated locations.

Advance yield markings

PEDSAFE states that advance yield markings can result in safer crossings for pedestrians since motorists stop further back from the actual crosswalk location, thereby improving visibility between the pedestrian and motorists in adjacent travel lanes. The markings that were found to be effective in this study were yield markings coupled with a regulatory sign indicating where drivers are to yield or stop for pedestrians. These markings help prevent against multiple threat crashes, which involve a vehicle in one lane yielding to a crossing pedestrian while the driver of an approaching vehicle (in the same direction) in an adjacent lane strikes the pedestrian. In these instances, the motorist is usually not aware of the crossing pedestrian since the pedestrian is shielded by the yielding vehicle.


Flashing yellow warning beacons, commonly called flashers, are frequently requested in the belief that they will reduce vehicle speeds and improve safety. Flashing beacons generally can be helpful when they are used to alert a driver of an unexpected condition that is not readily apparent, such as a pedestrian crossing beyond a curve or crest of a hill. To be effective, flashers must command respect of the drivers. Warning flashers can be mounted over the road or along the side of the road, and when used should be used in conjunction with advance warning signs.

While less expensive than traffic signals, flashers can be very costly. Studies in urban areas show that flashers typically result in little if any reduction in driver speeds. Even studies of flashers with speed limit signs (used to alert drivers of a lower speed limit when the flashing beacon is in operation) only resulted in about a three mph speed reduction. This is despite a regulatory speed limit sign requiring a 15-mph to 20-mph reduction when flashing at school zone locations.

When flashers are used improperly or are overused, they soon loose much of their effectiveness. If flashers are used, they should only flash during the times when crossings occur (e.g., such as during school crossing periods). This can be done with a time clock, pedestrian push button to activate the flasher, or through automatic pedestrian detection devices. For more details, go to the Engineering section.

Flashers can also be used with solar, wireless and microprocessor technology that can be easier to install than conventional systems.

In-pavement flashing lights or overhead lights

Another type of flasher, in-pavement lighting in crosswalks, also known as flashing crosswalks and in-roadway warning lights, is being used increasingly in communities across the nation. In most cases, this technique involves imbedding a series of flashing lights in the pavement on the outlines of crosswalks that are activated by a pedestrian push button or an automatic pedestrian detector triggered by a pedestrian who is about to enter the crosswalk. The flashing lights in the pavement, which span the width of the entire roadway, can be accompanied by flashing lights in a warning sign at the crosswalk. Flashing crosswalks are approved in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for marked crosswalks that are not controlled by traffic signals, STOP signs or YIELD signs. Though not recommended for wide, high-speed streets, a before and after study in Kirkland, WA, found that in-pavement crosswalk warning lights were effective in encouraging motorists to stop for pedestrians during the day time and especially at night. In this study, the percent of motorists who stopped for pedestrians using the crosswalk increased anywhere between 30 percent and 84 percent.

Improving overhead lighting can also improve safety and security for pedestrians. Overhead lights should be at the pedestrian level and should not be placed in a location that would block access to sidewalks or curb ramps.

Enforce Pedestrian Laws

In most states, drivers are supposed to yield to or stop for pedestrians crossing the street in a crosswalk, even if the pedestrian is in an unmarked crosswalk. However, these laws are not emphasized enough in driver education and are often are not enforced enough. This problem is more pronounced on higher speed streets where it is more difficult to get drivers to slow or yield to pedestrians. Pedestrians may become afraid to cross the street when motorists won't stop for them. These people may walk less. Fortunately, a number of steps can be taken to make pedestrian crossings safer that involve police enforcement and physical improvements.

Police enforcement is useful in educating motorists of the requirement to stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk. Police enforcement is most effective when it is part of a public safety information campaign. Enforcement campaigns designed to increase yielding behavior can produce a marked and sustained increase in the percentage of motorists yielding to pedestrians depending on how long the campaign lasts (i.e., longer campaigns equate to more sustained success). While enforcement projects are helpful, more long-term, on-going police enforcement measures should also be undertaken. City officials are essential in making pedestrian safety a priority to the police. Citizens and neighborhood advocates must inform their public officials of this need.

Install or improve traffic signals

Traffic signals are an important means of traffic control. When used properly (and where warranted) they can help improve safety, manage traffic effectively, and make it easier to cross the street. However, a number of factors need to be considered before a traffic signal is installed.

  • If the street is relatively narrow and motor vehicle traffic on the cross-street is moderate to low, the signal can result in more pedestrian delay while waiting for the WALK signal.
  • Often times, pedestrians will cross against the light, and motorists may also run the light, resulting in severe crashes.
  • Other potential pedestrian crashes may result from right-turn on green or left-turn on green vehicles (when motorists are supposed to yield to a pedestrian in the crosswalk).
  • Improperly placed traffic signals can result in an even higher numbers of crashes, can waste fuel, and can create more traffic congestion and air quality problems.
  • Traffic signals are expensive to build (costing $180,000 or more to build), in addition to ongoing operation and maintenance costs.
  • The installation of a traffic signal may increase cut-through traffic on the neighborhood street where the new signal is located.

Despite these concerns, where warranted, traffic signals (along with pedestrian signals) can benefit pedestrians in certain situations.

The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), published by the Federal Highway Administration, provides conditions when the advantages of a traffic signal may outweigh the disadvantages of a signal. There are two warrants, or reasons, that specifically or partially apply to pedestrians: the Pedestrian Volume Warrant, meaning there is a large number of pedestrians that would benefit from the installation of a traffic signal, and the School Crossing Warrant, meaning there is a good opportunity to improve a crossing for children near a school.

Even if these conditions apply, an important additional consideration is traffic signal spacing. When signalized locations are too close together, they could create more congestion, and may create gridlock conditions. In the core of a downtown area, it may be common to have traffic signals spaced one block apart, and traffic progression may be maintained by having one-way streets. In outlying areas, traffic signals should generally be spaced further apart. Because of the high cost of traffic signals and possible negative safety implications, it may be best to evaluate other measures in lieu of a signal, including raised median islands, reducing the number of lanes, improved lighting, improved warning signs or pavement markings.

Pedestrian signal use, operation, maintenance, and education

All traffic signals should have pedestrian crossing signals if pedestrians typically cross at the signal (except for some narrow street crossings). However, some intersections may not, perhaps because little attention may have been paid to pedestrian activity at the time the traffic signal was installed, or it was not the practice of your community to install pedestrian signals. Pedestrian signals are essential at complex intersections or when left-turn arrows exist. They should also be used at school crossings and for wide streets when pedestrians need to know if they will have enough time to complete their crossing

Operation and maintenance

Most traffic signals should operate so that pedestrian push buttons are not needed. Under these conditions, a walk interval is provided on every green signal for cars about every one to two minutes (called 'fixed-time' signal operation). Some pedestrian signals may need a push button to call the WALK signal to cross one or both streets at an intersection. When push buttons exist, they should be conveniently located near the crossing point, be reachable by a person in a wheelchair, be in plain view, and be easy to find. Agencies could also post signs informing pedestrians about how to use the push button and to wait for the WALK signal before crossing. Visit the Engineering section for more information on traffic signals.

Signal timing must ensure that pedestrians have enough time to cross the street. There must be enough time to allow pedestrians to finish crossing the street during the flashing DON'T WALK signal (or flashing upraised hand) so that they are out of the street before the signal changes. When traffic signals make pedestrians wait too long for a WALK signal to be given, people may become discouraged from using the crossing or may cross against the light. Similarly, people may ignore the signal if it does not give enough time to cross the street. If you experience or if you witness people experiencing any of these problems, contact your city's or town's traffic department and give them a detailed description of the problem and/or request that more time be added to the WALK cycle. For information on the timing of pedestrian crossing cycles and different options for coordinating these cycles, see the engineering section.

Your city needs to make sure that all pedestrian signals and push buttons are in working order. A periodic inspection program is needed for pedestrian signals. You can also help by reporting instances when the pedestrian signal is not working properly, the light is burned out, the push button does not work, or the signal is vandalized. You can also report locations where crosswalk markings have faded or been worn away.

Traffic signal education

Not all pedestrians understand what the pedestrian signal is telling them. While many pedestrians expect to see the WALK signal during the entire crossing, this isn't possible in many cases, especially for wide streets. The WALKING PERSON symbol or WALK signal means it is okay to start crossing. After a few steps into the street, pedestrians may see a flashing orange UPRAISED HAND or DON'T WALK signal. When this occurs, there should be enough time to complete crossing the street, but if you have not stepped into the street, you should stay on the curb and wait for the next WALKING PERSON or WALK signal. The duration of the flashing DON'T WALK should be long enough for a pedestrian to cross the entire street (or to a median or other place of safety). Signs can be installed at the traffic signal to educate pedestrians on the meaning of the WALK (or WALKING PERSON), the flashing DON'T WALK (or UPRAISED HAND) or solid DON'T WALK pedestrian signal. If you still need extra crossing time, you should wait for a 'fresh' WALK signal or call your local agency to request more crossing time.

Considerations for over- and underpasses

Pedestrian over- or underpasses (tunnels or bridges) are only helpful for busy pedestrian crossings across wide, high speed, or extremely high volume streets where there is no other safe way to get pedestrians across the street. While over- and underpasses can work well to keep pedestrians safe from busy or high speed vehicle traffic, they are also very expensive and obtrusive. Additionally, underpasses may involve significant crime, drainage, lighting, and maintenance concerns. Overpasses will result in better security, but will result in complaints from nearby homeowners about the loss of privacy and aesthetics. Also, in some locations, pedestrians will not use the over- or underpass if they believe they can save time by dashing across the street. This puts them in greater jeopardy.

Since ramps for overpasses (and underpasses) must be gradual enough to accommodate wheelchair users (with a maximum slope of 8.33 percent), they can be very lengthy and can greatly increase the distance traveled to cross the street. These ramps require a considerable amount of space on both sides of the bridge, which adds to the cost. The construction of underpasses can be very disruptive to traffic for a significant amount of time. Pedestrian underpasses or bridges can cost anywhere from $1.5 million or more. Accordingly, over- or underpasses should usually be constructed as a last resort. Overpasses work best when the topography allows for a structure without ramps (e.g., overpass over a sunken freeway). Underpasses work best when designed to feel open and accessible.

Improving Visibility at Crossings

If it is difficult for pedestrians to see traffic approaching the crosswalk, then it will be difficult for the motorist to see the person who is crossing. Crossings should be clear of obstacles (such as newspaper racks, large poles close to the roadway and bushes/trees) to maximize the pedestrian's ability to see approaching vehicles and for approaching motorists to see pedestrians. Additionally, changes to the street, such as curb extensions, can help improve the sight lines for pedestrians and motorists.

Make sure obstacles are minimized

Keep bushes and trees in medians or at the sides of street crossings that may obstruct the view for a pedestrian properly pruned. You can help by reporting visibility problems at street crossings to your town, city, or homeowners association. Before entering the street, stop at the edge of the curb and look left and right. If you can see clearly and no branches or other obstacles obstruct your view, you've done a good job making the crosswalk a safer place for fellow pedestrians. If a neighbor needs to prune their vegetation, talk to the homeowner, or contact your city or homeowner's association.

Request parking restrictions or curb bulbs

If parked cars obstruct your view when you try to look for on-coming traffic before crossing the street, call your city to report the problem. One of the easiest solutions is to prohibit parking, or to enforce the existing parking restrictions. Bus stops should typically be located downstream from a crosswalk to improve conditions for pedestrians and to encourage pedestrians to cross behind the bus. You can suggest the city consider installing curb extensions or build parking bays so that pedestrians can see around the parked cars.