An overwhelming majority of drivers apparently have missed the memo that state law requires them to stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk.
University of Minnesota researchers crossed St. Paul streets at “high-risk” intersections more than 1,500 times last fall as part of an ongoing study to track driver behavior at crosswalks with pedestrians present. The results were abysmal. Just 31 percent of drivers yielded to those on foot.
“People are in a hurry, and it’s not in their culture to slow down and stop,” said Sgt. Jeremy Ellison of the St. Paul Police Department. “We need to change that culture. We have a lot of work to do.”
That work begins Monday when the first phase of this year’s “Stop For Me” campaign gets underway. For the next two weeks, St. Paul police will conduct high-visibility crosswalk enforcement at eight intersections that have logged numerous vehicle-pedestrian crashes and see lots offending drivers. Police will give out only warnings, but they will be stopping as many offenders as possible to raise awareness about the problem — and more importantly to get drivers to stop, Ellison said.
The idea is to change behavior without writing a citation that carries a $100 fine plus court costs, Ellison said. But the grace period runs out in June, when officers will be ticketing at troublesome intersections along University and Snelling avenues, Dale Street and E. 7th Street.
They also will be out in August and October with another tool at their disposal. For the first time, officers can evaluate the situation and check a box on the citation indicating if the driver endangered a life or property. If the box is checked, the offending driver will have a mandatory court date.
“It makes it a more serious offense and hopefully seeing a judge makes them take accountability,” Ellison said.
Nichole Morris, director of the HumanFIRST Laboratory in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, sent teams of researchers to eight high-risk intersections without stoplights. One researcher crossed the street while a second made note of drivers’ reactions. Morris found just 3 in 10 motorists actually stopped.
Even more alarming: Drivers on two-lane roads sometimes swung into the oncoming lane to avoid having to stop. On roads with multiple lanes, researchers noticed that one driver might stop, but a second traveling in the same direction continued through the intersection without slowing down.
“It’s unsafe when people don’t yield to you, and at full speed it’s more likely to be fatal,” Morris said. “We see drivers not thinking twice about passing vehicles stopped at a crosswalk. We need drivers to ask, ‘Why is that vehicle slowing?’ ”
None of Morris’ researchers were hit, but plenty of other people have been. From 2013 to 2017, 835 pedestrians in St. Paul were struck by vehicles. Of those, 17 died and 747 were injured. Eighty-seven of those hurt were children 10 and under, and 100 were ages 11 to 17.
Change is possible, she said. Morris points to Gainesville, Fla., where efforts such as high-visibility enforcements have led to a culture shift because drivers know police are watching and taking action. Signs displaying the percentage of drivers yielding right of way to pedestrians, plus in-street signs denoting crosswalks placed between travel lanes, have led to a 70 percent compliance rate.
“We can change the culture in St. Paul and ultimately the entire Twin Cities,” she said.
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