3 out of 4 drivers fail to yield to pedestrians

And the nicer their car, the less likely they are to stop, researchers say

no lights
A non-signaled pedestrian crosswalk on Russell east of Eastern. (Photo: Hugh Jackson)

Drivers must yield to pedestrians trying to cross the road at marked crosswalks.

That’s the law.

Most drivers don’t follow it.

And drivers of expensive cars are even less likely to.

That’s the takeaway from public health researchers at UNLV who observed hundreds of drivers at two marked crosswalks in Southern Nevada and documented whether the drivers yielded for a pedestrian attempting to cross the road. The pedestrians involved were four identically dressed volunteers trained to approach and cross the road in a similar manner.

Only 28% of the drivers slowed down and stopped for the pedestrian.

A significant predictor of whether the driver would yield was the value of the car driven. The higher the value, the less likely they were to have stopped. The researchers found the odds of yielding decreased 3% per $1,000 increase in car value.

In other words, to borrow from a CNN write-up of the study, “If you drive an expensive car you’re probably a jerk, scientists say.”

UNLV Public Health Professor Courtney Coughenour, the lead researcher on the study, said her team had already planned to observe drivers at crosswalks when they came across research that found people with more money participate in less ethical behavior. They decided to see if that held true for driving behavior.

Beyond being low-hanging fodder for ragging on the rich, the study highlights the numerous barriers that exist for pedestrians trying to safely navigate the car-centric infrastructure of Southern Nevada.

“We have high pedestrian crash rates,” said Coughenour. “This might be one factor. But there are others.”

Fifteen pedestrians died in Clark County in January, according to figures released monthly by the Nevada Department of Public Safety. They included a 70-year-old woman hit by a 2019 Ford Transit Van while crossing Flamingo Road near Swenson Street, a 60-year-old man hit by a Dodge Journey while crossing Las Vegas Boulevard near Owens and a 73-year-old man hit by a 2007 BMW 3 Series while crossing Pecos Road near Tropicana Avenue. According to media reports of those three incidents, the pedestrians were either crossing the street outside of a crosswalk or crossing against the “Don’t Walk” signal at an intersection.

Many are quick to blame the pedestrian in such cases, but as the UNLV researchers point out in their study, the broader context of pedestrians’ experiences must be considered: “When pedestrians are forced to go out of their way to cross the street at a marked crosswalk, but that safe behavior is not rewarded (e.g. drivers fail to yield), they may be more likely to cross outside of the crosswalk.”

In other words, drivers — especially ones in expensive cars — are constantly sending a message to pedestrians: Why bother with crosswalks?

“Policy makers should consider the public health implications that may result from the observed lack of yielding and work to enhance enforcement of existing policy to improve yielding and enhance pedestrian safety,” reads the study.

Earlier this month, a 9-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy were struck by a Dodge Ram while crossing Lone Mountain Road. They were inside a crosswalk that features flashing lights. The boy died.

Clark County’s deadliest year on record for pedestrians was 2017. That year 78 people were fatally struck by vehicles — the peak of a seven-year rise in pedestrian fatalities. In 2018, numbers declined to 62 deaths in Clark County, which is good only when compared to the prior year. In 2016, 58 pedestrians in Clark County died.

All these numbers are a long way from zero — the goal set by public safety officials.

Coughenour would not disclose where the two observed crosswalks in the UNLV study are located, saying it would be unfair to single them out when results would likely be the same at crosswalks across the valley. However, she described the roads as minor arterials with five lanes — two travel lanes in both directions and one center turn lane. Warm Springs Road would be comparable, she added. The crosswalks were midblock (meaning not at an intersection) and did not have signals (such as flashing lights that people can activate with a button). Both have posted speed limits of 35 miles per hour, are located in areas where the median household income is $30,000 to $37,000, and are located within one mile of an elementary school.

The study notes that the majority of Southern Nevada’s major and minor arterial roadways have a speed limit 35 mph or higher.

Pedestrian Safety Nevada notes that one out of 10 pedestrians will die in a 20-mph crash, and nine out of 10 pedestrians will die in a 40-mph crash.

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.