Crossing and Double-Crossing

Transportation Professionals may think of crossing-related accidents as a school bus phenomenon. Yet as a veteran expert witness of more than 50 crossing-related lawsuits, I can testify that quite a few of them involved other types of vehicles – transit buses, motorcoaches and even paratransit vehicles. Unlike most school bus-related crossing accidents, where most crossing victims are struck by third- party vehicl3es, crossing victims involving other types of public transportation vehicles are typically struck y the vehicle itself.

For these reasons, the positions where crossing accidents are most likely to occur are well worth knowing. As a starting point, one might hark back to one’s school days, where we were taught to “cross at the green, not in between.” Regrettably, this oversimplification has led a century of crossing victims into a stadium of carnage. Part of this reflects the developmental inabilities of children below age 13, and particularly below age 10, to know how to cross a simple street. More importantly for such individuals, crossing an intersection – even a signalized intersection – is far more complex and disorienting. But a recent study in New York City (summarized by the New York Times in an article titled, “A View into the Urban Crossing Minefield”) provided the almost astounding conclusion that (at least in big cities), even for adults, crossing at a signalized intersection is significantly more dangerous than J-walking across a street at a mid-block position.

Particularly in Manhattan, the primary reason for this shattering of crossing mythology is largely because of the borough’s urban form – an urban form not entirely unique to Manhattan. Manhattan’s variation of this form involves a grid with a dozen or so wide, multi-lane avenues crisscrossing a web of nearly 200 narrow, mostly one-way streets, with parking on both sides, and only a single travel lane. While it is certain true that a small child may occasionally step out from between parked cars (“darting out” is a common cliché often employed by crossing victims’ attorneys), a bus or motorcoach driver seated high above the roadway surface, and paying attention, can normally spot a pedestrian about to enter the single travel lane of a side-street, particularly as buses and coaches traveling through such streets are normally travel much more slowly than when cruising the borough’s often six- or seven-lane avenues, many of which are also one-way streets.

Double-Crossing the Driver

One of the challenges of driving a large public transportation vehicle in an urban area like Manhattan is that many pedestrians step into the roadway without even thinking about, much less looking for, vehicles of any kind sharing the roadway. While more sophisticated adults are generally more careful doing this when crossing avenues (almost all of whose intersections are signalized), many step right into the roadway without a nanosecond of thought about or glance for automobiles, taxies, buses or motorcoaches alike. But unlike pedestrians doing this on side-streets, such behavior presents a far greater challenge to bus and coach drivers than to automobilists, partly because smaller, lighter vehicles can stop far more quickly from any given speed, and partly because the half-second required for air to compress within the air-brake system adds another 33% or so more time to the driver’s otherwise normal reaction time..

Particularly with the already-challenging maneuverability of a full-size, or worse, a 45-foot motorcoach through the narrow labyrinthine street network or a big city, a bus or motorcoach driver would be much better off if pedestrian largely did J-walk across side-streets. But most pedestrians do not, partly because of the mythology about crossing at intersections embedded into their minds since childhood, and partly because it seems more intuitive to change directions, or make turns, along one’s path from point X to point Y at intersections, especially since J-walking across the wide avenues along these paths is so dangerous simply because of the number of lanes and the speed of the vehicles traveling along them.

The reader should also note that traffic signals are generally designed to facilitate traffic flow along the avenues at the expense of slowing it to a crawl through side-streets. In order to do this, traffic signals are “synchronized” so that a clever driver can often travel on an avenue across 30 o 40 blocks’ worth of side-streets during off-peak periods without “hitting” a single light. If anyone has ever ridden in a taxi in cities with such characteristics – Manhattan may comprise an extreme example – he or she has experienced the phenomenon whereby these drivers do not even slow down as they approach an intersection, but instead, simply assume that the light will remain green for them. If for some reason the lights were suddenly de-synchronized in this manner, Manhattan might experience a major vehicle-to-vehicle collision every 30 seconds – at least until the cabbies learned to adjust to the changes.

Platitudes and Placebos

When one adds pedestrians to this mélange of risk, it is easy to see why so many vehicle-pedestrian accidents occur. Part of this pattern is due to the common behavior of pedestrians, while another part is due to the habits of motorists and drivers. Interestingly, the New York City study found that taxi drivers accounted for far fewer pedestrian accidents in Manhattan than did privately-owned vehicles. A more recent New York Times article about these problems was actually titled,’ “Deadliest for City’s Walkers: Male Driver, Left Turns.” The article began by advising its Metropolitan Area’s readers, “Want to take a safe stroll around New York City? Avoid crossing at intersections. Pay special heed to cars making left turns. Do not go anywhere between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m., stick to the side streets, and skip Manhattan entirely.” In truth, some of this advice was dangerously irresponsible, since it implied that one would be safer crossing avenues at a mid-block position, advice that would probably multiply vehicle-pedestrian accidents by several decimal points.

The article also noted that Today’s pedestrians are often using cell-phones when crossing intersections – while it failed to also note that many are also listening to music though the headsets of their i-pods or even “texting.” Similarly, the article failed to note that many motorists and taxi drivers are also doing these same things while driving. Frankly, in thousands of taxi rides, I have rarely ridden a mile without the driver talking on a cell-phone, and have found i-pods increasingly replacing conventional AN/FM car radios as the means-of-choice to intentionally or unintentionally block out what would otherwise help serve as audible cues about impending danger. The article also noted that accidents involving left turns occurred three times as often as those involving right turns – a finding that, frankly, surprised me, since I have found that, depending on the direction of the traffic along the avenue, I often need to look over my shoulder to spot vehicles about to turn in either direction from behind me on these avenues, while those motorists and drivers about to turn left have a far better view of pedestrians, and a greater span of distance in which to stop, before running them over. Finally, the article noted that J-walkers were involved in far fewer accidents than their “law-abiding counterparts who waited for the walk sign.”

I have always found this last point to involve a curiosity I actually consider malicious: If traffic lights are synchronized, why would ostensibly-professional traffic engineers allow a single individual to de-synchronize them by simply pushing a pedestrian crossing button? I have been fortunate enough to have assuaged my curiosity about this illusion during my investigations of dozens of crossing accidents where I times the differences in light cycles and “green time” when (a) such buttons were pushed and (b) when they were not pushed. To my surprise, I found first that both the total length of a complete light cycle and its various phases were often dramatically different from one cycle to the next even without any interference from pedestrians pushing crossing buttons. More interestingly, I found that pushing the buttons often had no effect whatsoever on either the total cycle length or the green time of any of its “phases.” In other words, many if not most pedestrian crossing buttons are nothing but placebos.

Interestingly, there is actually a scientific basis for this approach to pedestrian control (in the same sense that modern “customer service” is really nothing but “customer control”), even though those planting these deceptions may not be familiar with it. Decades ago, the Federal Transit Administration’s predecessor, UMTA (Urban Mass Transportation Administration), conducted a study of a bus passenger’s perception of travel time versus waiting time – ostensibly to determine why ridership levels were reasonable when the trip contained only a single transfer (8i.e., a change from one bus to another on an intersecting line) yet fell of almost completely when two or more transfers were required. This study found that passengers or would-be passengers perceived the passage of time to be two and a half times longer when they were waiting for a bus to arrive than while riding it!

Also interesting about the New York City study – which examined data from 7,000 vehicle-pedestrian accidents from 2002 to 2006 – it found that 80 percent of the motorists were males! Of course, the New York Times overview failed to cite what percentage of the City’s drivers overall were males; I do not know if the study bothered to consider this context as well. Regardless, New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan characterized the study as “the Rosetta Stone for safety on the streets of New York.” And the City is planning a number of dramatic changes to traffic flow facilitators and impediments as a consequence. Among them will be the installation of “count down clocks” at 1500 intersections. Of course, one has to wonder what difference such clocks will make to pedestrians who simply step into the roadway without even thinking about vehicles, much less looking for them.

Finally, parts of the study presented both a national and international embarrassment: It concluded that traveling in New York City is far safer than in most other large American cities, with half the per capita rate of fatalities in cities such as Atlanta, Detroit or Los Angeles. At the same time, the study cited many other major world capitals – including Berlin, London, Paris and Tokyo – that were all statistically safer. Whether or not the study itself did, the New York Times’ summary of its findings failed to cite the fact that Sweden is actually close to reaching its vehicle-pedestrian accident goals of having none.

Words to the Wise

JA single magazine article, much less the study itself, could not begin to identify the full range of implications these findings have for bus and motorcoach drivers. But many are obvious: Pedestrians do not think or look when stepping into the roadway, are often distracted by audio/visual digitalia, and select the most dangerous positions within the roadway network to cross streets. At the same time, most traffic regulations provide pedestrians with the “right-of-way” only while they are within crosswalks. And I have been involved in many lawsuits where pedestrians stepped into these crosswalks right in front of buses merely nanoseconds before being struck by them, sometimes exponentially premature for the driver’s engagement of the vehicle’s brakes, much less when the braking time and distance was added to a normal bus or coach driver’s reaction time of 2.0 seconds (again, including the half-second added because of the air brake system) and the distance into which it translated at various speeds.

To expect even the most sophisticated juror to have read a study not easily accessible and, in general, essentially obscure to even the minor interest of practically every one of them, would be hopelessly naïve. Instead, most jurors would more likely rely on the misguided anti-wisdom of old wives’ tales whose beliefs the New York City study obliterated. The significance of these findings is that, in large U.S. cities, bus and motorcoach drivers need to be far more careful crossing intersections than they may feel they need to be or than they were taught or trained to be.

In our courts, professional drivers and motorists alike may be blamed for many accidents that are not primarily their fault. Liability is far lower for these drivers and motorists in states that attorneys and experts refer to as “one-percent states” in terms of “comparative negligence” – Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina and one other state that always seems to escape me – since, in those states, if the accident victim is even one percent at fault, the defendants can simply “walk away” (excuse the unavoidable pun). In terms of justice for pedestrians crossing streets in large cities in these states, they may as well be crossing them in the Third Reich. But these states are the exception. In the “other 46,” drivers and motorists must really be well-rested, alert, sharp and focused, their windshields must be clean, their headlights must be bright and properly aligned, and they must possess top-notch direct and peripheral vision when crossing any intersection. These are challenging criteria in a country where, in most states, the night vision of professional divers is rarely even tested during the hiring process – even while another study I noted years ago in another NBT article found that the average driver’s night vision at age 40 was half that of his or her night vision at age 20.

If one were to take the depositions of drivers who have just run over pedestrians seriously one might conclude that, “what you get is not what you see.” This is pure baloney. Somewhat closer to the truth, yet still somewhat of a sloppy rationalization, is that, “Yee know not what yee shall find.” Regardless, the bottom line for bus and motorcoach drivers is, “Be careful out there.” You or your employer may not only pay a huge price for your errors and omissions, but you may pay a huge price for the errors and omissions of others.

Publications: School Transportation News.