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Confusion over right-of-way may be adding to pedestrian road trauma

The latest NSW road injury figures (2005) show that 78% of collisions between pedestrians and vehicles occur when pedestrians are crossing roads. Most of these collisions occur away from a marked crossing but a sizeable proportion (16%) occurs at marked crossings, especially for older pedestrians.

The report is based on two studies, one that surveyed people’s understanding of road rules and a clandestine filed study of pedestrian behaviour.

In the survey study, 574 people in Sydney and rural NSW were asked their beliefs about pedestrian right-of-way for a range of situations at signal-controlled crossings, marked pedestrian crossings (zebra crossings), and unmarked sections of road.

Understanding of brick-paved sections of road and pedestrian refuges was poor, Dr Hatfield says: "There is confusion about right-of-way at brick-paved sections of road and pedestrian refuges that are not marked to indicate a crossing. In Australia, neither of these installations operates as a marked crossing, but the public may believe that they do."

One in three respondents believed that a pedestrian has right-of way at a brick-paved section and one in six said a pedestrian had right-of-way at a pedestrian refuge. One in five Sydneysiders and one in ten rural NSW residents said they didn't know who has right-of-way at a brick-paved section of road. According to NSW road rules, brick-paved roadway and pedestrian refuges are no different in status to unmarked sections of road, where only 8% of respondents believed a pedestrian has right-of-way.

"If brick-paved sections of road are intended to be crossings they should be marked as such, and otherwise they should be removed," says Dr Hatfield. "Pedestrian refuges are more likely to have a road-safety value, but road users should be aware that they don't afford right-of-way."

Over 90% of respondents knew that at marked pedestrian crossings (zebra crossings), drivers are required to slow down and stop when a pedestrian is on the crossing. But a surprising 71% of respondents believed that a pedestrian has right-of way while waiting to step onto the crossing, whereas this is true only for ‘children's crossings’. "Extending right-of-way to pedestrians who are waiting at zebra crossings would remove this scope for confusion," says Dr Hatfield.

Younger people were more likely than older people to correctly say a pedestrian has right of way while crossing at zebra crossings, but were more likely to incorrectly say a pedestrian has right of way while waiting to cross at zebra crossings.

The results also show confusion over right of way when a driver who is facing a green traffic signal turns left or right across the path of a pedestrian crossing on a Walk signal, a Flashing Don't Walk signal, or a Don't Walk signal.

"Drivers may feel - wrongly - that they have right-of-way over pedestrians in these situations because they are facing a green traffic signal, and this may be particularly pronounced when the pedestrian is facing a flashing or static Don't Walk signal," says Dr Hatfield. "Road users should be aware that turning vehicles must give right-of-way to pedestrians, even when the vehicle is facing a Green signal, and regardless of the pedestrian signal."

Australian road rules governing signal-controlled intersections state that pedestrians may start to cross on a Walk signal. Pedestrians must not start to cross, but may finish crossing on a flashing Don't Walk signal, and they must not start crossing on a Don't Walk signal.

The researchers observed 2,626 pedestrians crossing at signal-controlled crossings in Sydney and rural NSW and found that the bulk of pedestrians complied with these rules: 80% crossed at the Walk sign, however 6% crossed at the flashing Don't Walk signal and 14% crossed at a Don't Walk signal.

Pedestrians who walked against a flashing Don't Walk or a Don't Walk signal were more likely to look at traffic before crossing and while crossing than those who walked on a Walk signal. This backs up the survey findings, which suggest that pedestrians think their right of way is influenced by the pedestrian signal. The observational study also reveals that female pedestrians are more likely than male pedestrians to look for traffic before crossing.

Dr Hatfield says pedestrian crossing types should be rationalised and all road users should know about rules and responsibilities at crossings. "It is also important to stay aware, and be considerate, of fellow road users."

Dr Julie Hatfield is a Senior Research Fellow at the NSW Injury Risk Management Research Centre at the University of NSW, where she undertakes research that aims to improve road safety. Her current research focuses on road-user distraction, as well as the role of psychological factors in risky driving, especially amongst younger drivers. Several of her research projects have aimed to develop and evaluate interventions for younger drivers. She also conducts research on vulnerable road-users (pedestrians and cyclists).

Julie Hatfield | EurekAlert!
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