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Racing the Clock to Cross the Street? In One State, It'll Cost You.

Hawaii recently passed a law allowing police to ticket pedestrians for starting to cross a street when the countdown starts. Other states let the walkers decide if they can make it.

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Anyone who's ever used a crosswalk at busy intersection knows the feeling: You’re about to step into the street, when the pedestrian signal switches from a white walking figure to a flashing orange hand. Do you try to make it across anyway?

More and more intersections these days include a countdown timer that shows just how many seconds pedestrians have before the signal changes. Traffic experts say the extra information helps walkers make better decisions; they make fewer risky crossings and speed up if it looks like the light is going to change before they get to the other side.

But in one state, it's now illegal for pedestrians to step into the street once the clock starts counting down.

In Hawaii, anyone who starts crossing after the countdown begins can be issued a ticket for $130. Walkers who are already in the intersection when the countdown appears (at the start of the flashing orange hand or “Don’t Walk” signal) will be allowed to finish.

Gov. David Ige signed the law along with three others that address pedestrian safety. Pedestrian deaths in Hawaii shot up from 15 in 2017 to 44 in 2018, the highest number since at least 2003.

The state transportation department told lawmakers in March that pedestrians shouldn’t be allowed to cross once the numbers start flashing.

“This will decrease overall intersection safety especially for elderly persons and children, our most vulnerable pedestrians, as they may incorrectly judge the time needed to complete their crossing,” the department explained in written testimony. “In addition, the result of more pedestrians crossing after the countdown begins comes the increase potential for pedestrian and vehicle accidents due to added pedestrian-vehicle conflicts, and less or smaller gaps in traffic for turning vehicles.”

Proponents, including the Honolulu Police Department, said the changes would merely update a law written in 1981 to reflect changes in pedestrian signals. The police department also wanted to make sure that the law covered situations in which the flashing hand signal was broken but the countdown timer still worked.


Inconsistency Across States

A handful of Hawaii residents pushed state lawmakers to try a more permissive approach. California, they noted, recently changed its law in the opposite direction: Pedestrians are now allowed to cross during the countdown, so long as they get to the other side by the time it ends.

The federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), a highly detailed set of standards that is a sort of bible among traffic engineers, dictates that countdown timers have to accompany the upraised hand signal. States must adopt the MUTCD in order to qualify for federal transportation money, so they tend to follow it closely. (Not all cities' timers work in quite the same way. In Washington, D.C., the countdown actually covers the entire walking period, starting with the white "Walk" figure and continuing once the orange "Don't Walk" hand signal appears.)

But that doesn’t mean states must interpret -- or enforce -- those signals the same way, points out David Hurwitz, a professor of civil and construction engineering at Oregon State University. In fact, for something as basic as yellow lights, states have three different approaches for what drivers are supposed to do: Either they are allowed to go through, they must stop, or they must stop unless it would be unsafe to do so.

In situations where there isn’t consistency across states, local officials need to clearly convey their rules, Hurwitz says. That’s especially true in a place like Hawaii, where tourists from all around the world come to visit.

“If you’re going to adopt legal standards that might be different than what most states are doing currently [in order] to change behaviors, you really have to advertise what your expectation is for those users is,” he says. “People aren’t going to read the state laws before they come to Hawaii.”

When it comes to changing behavior, the frequency of citations is more important than the size of the fines, he says.If dangerous pedestrian crossings are consistently a problem, traffic engineers may want to consider readjusting the amount of time they give pedestrians to cross the intersection and reduce the amount of time they have to wait, Hurwitz says.

But Timothy Gates, a Michigan State University engineering professor, says protecting pedestrians means improving conditions away from intersections. “If you've got a signal, you've at least got some semblance of protection there, with the separation of the right-of-way versus the mid-block crossing where there’s no signal,” he says. “That’s where a lot of the fatalities happen.”

Besides, he adds, the countdown timers give pedestrians plenty of time to cross. They usually figure that the pedestrian will move at 3.5 feet per second, in order to give elderly people and others with mobility problems time to get across. “I think it’s perfectly reasonable to give a person wishing to cross the chance to make that judgment,” he says.

This appears in the Infrastructure newsletter. Subscribe for free.

Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.
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