Drivers turning left are a leading cause of pedestrian crashes in urban areas. Where drivers can only turn left with a green left-turn arrow, pedestrians are more protected. But when drivers are watching oncoming traffic for a chance to make their turn, they tend not to be as vigilant as they should to watch for pedestrians. In fact, 5 to 11 percent of drivers don’t look for pedestrians in the crosswalk at all.
Two Oregon researchers observed people’s behavior and eye movements as they operated a driving simulator to see if they noticed pedestrians. David Hurwitz from Oregon State University and Christopher Monsere from Portland State University found that danger increased with more cars and fewer people walking. There is safety in numbers: The more pedestrians there are, the more drivers pay attention. But if there are more cars, they take up more of the drivers’ attention.
It’s no surprise that drivers’ attention is compromised when they have to watch oncoming traffic for a chance to turn. One solution is to prohibit left turns except with a green arrow — a “protected” left — instead of letting drivers pick their own moment with a “permissive” left turn signal — a circular green or flashing yellow, for example.
Michael Ronkin, a former Oregon DOT bike/ped coordinator who now lives in Europe, said “permissive [non-dedicated] left-turns are extremely rare in urban environments” there, with far better pedestrian safety as a result. “[The] clear message in the U.S. [is that] moving cars is more important than protecting people not in cars,” he said.
Pedestrian advocates also favor a signal phase exclusively for people on foot, such as a Barnes dance, where pedestrians can cross in all directions, even diagonally, and all traffic is stopped.
But are dedicated signals the solution?