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April 24, 2019

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Study: Minority pedestrians more at risk in crosswalks

Boulder Highway: Pedestrian Safety

Steve Marcus

Pedestrians cross Boulder Highway in a designated crosswalk Thursday, March 2, 2017.

An ongoing study led by a UNLV professor showed motorists in high-income areas are more likely to travel through an intersection while a black pedestrian was in a crosswalk, compared to a white person crossing at the same intersection.

Smart Growth America ranked Nevada as the 12th most dangerous state to be a pedestrian last year, with Las Vegas ranking as the 21st most dangerous metropolitan area (out of 52). The number of pedestrian deaths in Nevada has increased three years in a row. In March 2016, the state declared an epidemic of pedestrian fatalities with numbers up 46 percent from the same time period in 2015.

UNLV community health sciences professor Courtney Coughenour came up with the idea for the study about minority pedestrians after reviewing a similar study in Oregon.

“We saw in a study out of Portland that there was a bias in driving-yielding behavior,” Coughenour said. “Las Vegas is more sprawling (than Portland), and research shows that (sprawl) results in higher rates of pedestrian crashes. So we wanted to see if there was a difference between downtown Portland and sprawling Las Vegas.”

The study used two women, one white and one African-American, and had them take turns crossing the same street in a high-income area and one in a low-income area on different sides of the Las Vegas Valley.

The two women crossed the street 30 times each in both neighborhoods from 10 a.m. to noon on a Saturday and Sunday.

Researchers observed two specific driving behaviors of motorists while the crossing tests were conducted.

• How many cars passed in the nearest lane before yielding while the pedestrian waited near the crosswalk on the curb, attempting to make eye contact with the driver and waiting for the car in the nearest lane to begin braking.

• How many motorists drove through the crosswalk while the pedestrian was actually in the process of crossing their half of the road.

The study discovered that, at the high-income neighborhood crosswalk, drivers were slightly less likely to yield for the white pedestrian waiting curbside (47 percent of the time) than the black pedestrian (55 percent of the time).

Different results were seen by researchers once the pedestrians stepped into the road. At that same high-income crosswalk, significantly more motorists drove through the crosswalk while the black pedestrian was already in the road compared to the white pedestrian.

The findings showed that one or more cars drove through the intersection 20.6 percent of the time while the black pedestrian was actively crossing compared to 2.9 percent of the time while the white pedestrian crossing. That works out to a 7-to-1 ratio.

Overall, the study revealed motorists yielded to a pedestrian waiting curbside only 51.5 percent of the time in the high-income neighborhood and 70.7 percent of the time at the low-income crosswalk, no matter the race of the pedestrian.

Although she expected a bias based on the study in Portland, Coughenour was still surprised by the numbers.

“(I was surprised) in the differences with the yielding, to whether if someone was on the sidewalk or if the person was in the road,” Coughenour said.

In the low-income neighborhood, there was no notable difference in driver yield rates for pedestrians either on the curb or in the road, the study showed.

Researchers questioned but did not study whether the different speed limits on the opposing sides of the valley (45 mph in high-income, 35 mph in lower-income) or if drivers not being accustomed to seeing pedestrians played a role in the findings.

In addition to lower speed limits and pedestrian safety enhancements, better enforcement of crosswalk rules and information campaigns to remind motorists they must yield to pedestrians would help, Coughenour said.

“No one type of user owns the road; cars, pedestrians and cyclists have the same right to those shared spaces and deserve respect," she said.

Coughenour hopes to get conversations started to raise awareness for pedestrians and motorists alike.

“We have to talk about these things in order to address the biases that exist,” she said.