Cities are investing in new technology to make crosswalk markings more eye-catching, but experts stress that flash alone won't improve safety.
Alarmed by the rising number of pedestrian deaths across Minnesota, cities are turning to catchy new, high-tech ways to keep cars and pedestrians from clashing in crosswalks.
From Brooklyn Center to Becker, almost a dozen cities are melting asphalt and brightly colored plastic in distinct markings stamped into the pavement. More cities are installing countdown timers that let pedestrians know how much time they have to safely cross. And Edina is one of the few cities in the Midwest with blinking orange lights embedded in a street to catch drivers' eyes.
"In the last three to five years, there's been a tremendous amount of work done on crosswalk safety," said Wayne Houle, Edina's engineering director, adding it's spurred by more bikers and walkers using streets. "It's the trend of people getting out of their cars and walking and biking ... they're kind of demanding it."
October is historically the deadliest month of the year for pedestrians, but the urgency is even higher with 25 pedestrians killed crossing Minnesota streets so far this year -- up from 18 this time last year, putting 2012 on pace, as of Friday, to be the deadliest for pedestrians in the last five years.
Not everyone's convinced new designs will save lives.
State experts say there's no research proving new crosswalk markings make them safer. In St. Paul, city engineers say they haven't seen a difference in incidents after special markings were put in at the Selby Avenue and Victoria Street intersection. Instead, they worry it gives pedestrians a false sense of security.
"There are so many factors that influence if pedestrians are safe at an intersection," said Dave Hunt, spokesman for the city's Public Works. "We just didn't see it made much of a difference."
Taking action before tragedy
In Minneapolis, engineers are testing staggered crosswalk times in Uptown that give pedestrians a head start into the crosswalk before cars can go. If it's successful, the city says it will do the same elsewhere.
In cities like Minnetonka, the state Department of Transportation is adding more accessible pedestrian signals that beep and have Braille symbols for pedestrians who are sight impaired. The state is also testing out the latest in pedestrian signals in St. Cloud and two other cities.
And in Edina, engineers are exploring the latest video technology that detects pedestrians and changes street signals to allow them to cross. The city is also looking to widen crosswalks on busy France Avenue -- trying to take action, Houle said, before a tragedy happens.
"It's not going to provide additional safety, but it's going to enhance the awareness of drivers," he said.
Some cities are turning to countdown timers because research shows they're more effective than the standard walk signal at getting pedestrians across safely. They're also spurred by a new federal rule that requires cities to install them when updating signals.
Thermoplastic 'like iron'
Many cities are also turning to Decorative Pavement Marking in Plymouth for its thermoplastic technology.
Unlike the standard white painted crosswalks where a top reflective layer wears off, the melted plastic has reflective beads throughout so it stays reflective longer. The company says they're also less likely to be scraped off by snowplows in winter or fade as fast, lasting seven to 10 years.
"They're like iron," owner Randy Johnson said of the durability.
The cities that have Johnson's company install the highly visible crosswalks pay more -- Edina paid about $7,000 more for one project, but the total cost can vary, ranging from $7,600 for one school crosswalk to $50,000 for a large four-way intersection. But it can save city staff time and money because standard white crosswalk markings often have to be repainted twice a year.
Besides Edina, the thermoplastic markings have been laid in St. Paul, Hopkins, Eden Prairie, Champlin, Circle Pines, Brooklyn Center, Minneapolis, Becker and Big Lake.
Distracted driving, walking
Some experts caution research hasn't proved the new markings are more effective at alerting drivers.
"Right now, they're new and different and eye-catching," said Sue Groth, state traffic engineer. "But are the motorists going to be looking at the pavement markings and not at pedestrians? Are they more effective is the question that needs to be answered."
The state Department of Transportation is boosting public education this month with its first pedestrian safety campaign in nearly 15 years, posting ads on buses, billboards -- even bar restrooms. The main message: Every intersection is a crosswalk, whether it's marked with paint or not, and pedestrians and drivers have a shared responsibility to be alert.
"We think that's where we can make the biggest impact out there," Groth said.
While other traffic deaths such as drunken driving have declined, pedestrian deaths have risen since 2008.
Last year, the 40 Minnesota pedestrians killed were part of 857 pedestrian injuries and deaths in 2011, up by nearly 50 from 2010. In 35 percent of those cases, drivers failed to yield to pedestrians. The next biggest cause: distraction or inattention. About 20 deaths involved alcohol consumption by the pedestrian or crossing without a crosswalk or a signal.
All of the extra safety measures don't always add up to better driver attention.
Houle said that some cars still breeze by the crosswalk near the Galleria in Edina, despite the innovative blinking lights embedded into the road.
Although the fine for not yielding to a pedestrian is a misdemeanor ticket costing $178 -- more than most speeding tickets -- Houle said it will take legislative changes raising fines to alter Minnesotans' mindset.
In fact, experts say it's going to take all three -- enforcement, engineering and education -- to truly turn the trend.
"I'm not sure everybody understands every corner is a crosswalk," Groth said. "There are a lot of things we can be doing -- it's not just one thing."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 • Twitter: @kellystrib