Greater City Providence

That’s because that’s where the people are

I’ve been seeing this on social media today via the Atlantic Cities:

Pedestrians struck by cars are most often hit while in the crosswalk, with the signal on their side.

The reaction is, ZOMG! Are we safe nowherezzz!?

That’s because that is where the most pedestrians have the most interaction with cars, isn’t it? It is not because crosswalks are dangerous per say, it is because that is where cars and people are at the same place at the same time most often. It is like being worried about how most shark attacks happen in 3 feet of water, if people mostly swam in 1,000 feet of water, that would be where most shark attacks happened.

Jef Nickerson

Jef is Greater City Providence's co-founder, editor, and publisher. He grew up on Cape Cod and lived in Boston; Portland, Maine; and New York before settling in Providence. In addition to urbanism, Jef is interested in art, design, and ice cream. Please feel free to contact Jef if you have any question or comments about Greater City Providence.


  • I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve nearly been run down in a crosswalk in Providence. Only here’s the hinky part – it’s mostly by cops, no sirens, no lights and even unmarked cruisers.

    I’ve written PPD on facebook – but it still occurs.

  • The crosswalks in New England are like nothing I’ve ever seen back home. In Pennsylvania, I’ve never seen a crosswalk anywhere without either a traffic light or a stop sign. The idea that you just plop down some paint in the middle of a street where people are driving 35 mph, and expect them to stop when they don’t normally have to, appears to me as the root of the problem.

    I know that you (Jef) are not a huge fan of speed bumps, but I would very much like to see them on both Broadway and Westminster (the West End part), because people get going way too fast on both of those streets. The speed limit ought to come down to 20 even, too, so that the 5 mph give-or-take that police can give to speeders should only at most bring people up to 25 mph. I’ve seen cop cars that are apparently set up to catch speeding drivers just sit and allow most of the violators past. I don’t know if that’s because they want to just catch the most egregious violators, or if there’s some other strategic policing reason, but it makes no sense to me.

  • Police generally give speeders 7-10 mph above the speed limit. But that’s not the issue. The issue is that even if you drop the speed limit to 20, it’s still not going to be enforced. It gets kinda big brothery, but how about speed cameras on those streets? We’ve got red light cameras at certain intersections, why not speed cameras?

  • The idea that crosswalks, signals and beg buttons are there for pedestrian safety is a fraud and an insult. Their purpose is to limit the occasions when pedestrians may interfere with the flow of vehicles. They make sense only where pedestrian volume would otherwise grind traffic to a lasting halt.

    The most dangerous thing of all is to think that crossing in a crosswalk with the walk signal means you do not have to look out every bit as carefully and remain just as alert as when you cross against the signal or mid block. Added safety, if any, obtains only if you are in a knot of pedestrians, less likely to be unnoticed by drivers. At most times and places in this city a pedestrian is an isolated phenomenon. Crosswalk, signal, stop sign – – none of these improve your odds of survival. At all times you are on your own to judge when a gap in traffic allows you to cross. Mid block, where traffic approaches from only 2 directions, is usually safest.

  • I used to think that having photo enforcement of traffic violations was Big Brothery too, but now I don’t anymore. I feel like driving on a public street is a substantially public action that one shouldn’t expect any privacy at all doing it.

    I would be against using the cameras for non-traffic purposes. I think that is Big Brothery.

  • There is a dog bites man element in the story, but lets backup a second. It may be true that most interaction occurs at a crosswalk, so yes, your premise is right Jef, but I think you miss the detail of the study. 44% of the people injured (not killed, they aren’t counted in this study) were injured because the vehicle driver entered the crosswalk during a phase when they’re required to either stop, stop and yield (right on red) or yield (protected right) to crosswalk users. This is unacceptable.

    Andrew, your argument sounds suspiciously like blame the victim. Regardless of commonness, which is relative to the environment, Signalized intersections with crosswalks, probably exist in an urban environment primary with people crossing the streeet not being uncommon.

    Absolutely, there is responsibility for the person crossing to do so safely and not just step into traffic because of magic paint, but the big finding is of those injured at signalized intersections with crosswalks, not mid-block or non-signalized crossing. What’s being shown to be effective for those type of crossings is the placards in the middle of the street reminding drivers to yield to people using the crosswalk, partly I suspect because it’s perceived as an obstacle more than any great desire to slow down and obey the law.

    I’m with James, government clearly doesn’t want to invest police officer time to enforce speed and other traffic law, so outsource it to machines, who can do it far more reliably and consistently.

  • Of course people being run down in crosswalks is unacceptable, but the way the story was playing out on Social Media yesterday was along the lines of, “OMG! That’s where we were supposed to be safe!!!!”

    Well, yes and no. It is where engineers decide pedestrians should be, but when you put a ton of steel operated by a fallible human in the same space as fallible meat bags who may or may not be paying attention to where they are going, then you’re going to have conflict.

    It would have been surprising if most incidents happened outside of crosswalks. Just as it would be surprising if most shark attacks were found to take place at Walmart.

    The important story is why do our existing traffic control devices not adequately protect pedestrians, and what can we do to improve them?

  • I think for starters, we should make turning right on red illegal. It’ll cost money to do so in putting signs up at every intersection, but it would make it a bit safer for pedestrians, since for most drivers, turning right on red means just going, not stopping first.

    I still like the idea of speed cameras on certain streets (Broadway and Westminster west of 95, for example). I also think red light cameras should be added to other intersections in the city and cover the full intersection rather than just certain directions.

    Finally, we need the police to actually enforce traffic laws. I once complained about people speeding on my street (it’s used by people to cut from Chalkstone to River Ave (and vice versa), avoiding the traffic light). The lieutenant said he had a car check for speeding and there wasn’t anyone speeding. I don’t know if he actually send someone out there or not, but if he did, it would have been blatantly obvious and no one would have sped. Streets like Broadway and Westminster have more places for a cop car to hide out of sight than my little street.

  • Getting to Andrew I’s point, Planetizen in their headline about the study called crosswalks, “Supposed Safe Havens.”

    I’m sorry, no. I don’t want to excuse bad driver behaviour, or blame the victim, but people should not be taught that crosswalks and walk lights make them safe. When you have a ton of steel bearing down on you, paint and lights don’t make you safe, vigilance does. Crosswalks are not a safe haven, you need to be on guard, you’re about to walk out into a place where cars live. That’s not the way I want life to be, but it is the way it is today.

  • What James Kennedy says about cameras is exactly right.

    If anyone thinks I am blaming the victim, I did not make myself clear enough. I am blaming the system. The degree to which the system makes pedestrians responsible for their own safety is a disgrace. Most of the time when someone gets hurt, the pedestrian gets blamed. Most of the time when the pedestrian can not be blamed, gee whiz, no one is to blame. The ZOMG you hear is people finally waking up to what a failure the system is.

    It all went wrong when “Where and when a pedestrian may cross the street” was allowed to become the exceptional circumstance, and everyone accepted that this circumstance could be created by a traffic control device, and that if people are not safe enough we merely need better devices. The root of the problem is that the street became a place people enter only at the pleasure and convenience of drivers. The city needs to be a place where every driver proceeds at a speed and attentiveness required by an ironclad assumption that any collision with a person is the driver’s fault and the consequences are severe. Period. Then the problem becomes how to encourage a level of forbearance by pedestrians toward drivers that allows traffic to move.

    Pie in the sky? Yeah, my stock in trade I guess. The reality otherwise, which no tinkering with traffic control devices will change, is this: Routine bloodshed by people who are not driving has been deemed an acceptable price of the “Level of Service” to which drivers are entitled.

  • I mean, Lord, there was a situation recently in Washington D.C. where a bicyclist was run off the road by a pickup truck driver intentionally, the driver confessed, and there was bike-cam video evidence of top of that, and the driver got to keep his license and do zero time in jail. So, there’s definitely a blame-the-victim mentality when it comes to anything that involves pedestrians or cyclists.

    Do we have to put up signs about No Turn on Red if we change the law statewide? We had signs everywhere in urban/suburban Pennsylvania outlining that people couldn’t do that at intersections, but I always assumed that was because we couldn’t get the rednecks in Pennsyltucky to go along with a statewide change. Wouldn’t it be pretty easy to pass such a change in a relatively homogenous state like Rhode Island? And if it was statewide, wouldn’t people just be responsible to know the law?

  • Thanks for the clarifications Jef and Andrew I.

    I’m with you on strict liability being necessary. Unless it can be proven otherwise, the driver of a vehicle injuring a person outside a vehicle should assumed to be at fault. Speed limits should come down, right turn on red should be illegal.

    James – I’m from Pittsburgh where a strange sign accompanies many a stop sign “except right turn”. When did right on red become illegal?

  • Very good catch. This is essentially arguing for normalizing events like cars hitting pedestrians to the amount of risk exposure. People are typically not at risk of getting hit except when they’re in the crosswalk (except for very rare occurrences in which cars come onto the sidewalk).

    This is a bit similar to the old aphorism that “Most accidents occur in the home” that prompts people to say “Wow, even our homes are dangerous”. But as Jef astutely recognized, it’s just because our homes are where we spend the greatest amount of time, and thus total exposure to risk will be higher.

    To get a meaningful measure of the safety of crosswalks, we’d need a more detailed study (probably almost impossible to conduct) that calculated rates of getting hit per crossings of different types (in crosswalk, in crosswalk against light, at intersection with no crosswalk, between intersections). Even this type of study would have its methodological issues. But it would get us closer to answering the question of where pedestrians are most ‘safe’.

  • First, despite the bad news I note much of the time drivers do stop for me in crosswalks (at least on streets like Smith, Hope, Academy…) though maybe because I m so evidently a senior, they often even stop for me as a bicyclist crossing roads on the bike paths even though they have the right of way!

    Second, for the dangerous scofflaws, I agree with using automated cameras. I’ve already testified for them in opposition to the ACLU, holding up my ACLU card but noting they didn’t ask me as a member and I don’t think there is a constitutional right to run red lights (just to due process.) I also support
    more serious enforcement against dangerous driving, and to close a gap in the law whereby there are almost no penalties when a motorist kills or inures someone if they are not drunk, a hit-and-run, or acting with criminal intent. Indeed there are 3 bills to address this situation being heard at Senate Judiciary this Tuesday 4/9 (see S350, S491, S625.) There is also a RIDOT bill, H5655, to strengthen driver education on distracted driving dangers, and numerous bills to tighten controls on drunk driving.

    I hope the bike/ped advisory committee will take up some of the suggestions posted here on

  • Only New York City has no right-turn-on-red. New York State has right-turn-on-red, plus left-turn-on-red, but only from a one-way street to another one-way street.

    The biggest problem with right-turns-on-red is that cars rarely come to a complete stop. Drivers tend to treat right-turns-on-red like a highway entrance ramp yield. Where there are bike lanes it’s even more dangerous. This is driver attitude problem and many of who believe that they are entitled to the street above anyone else.

    In spite of the caricature of aggressive New York drivers, in Manhattan, even when cars have a green light and are making a turn, most drivers patiently wait for pedestrians to get out of the crosswalk.

    The right-turn-on-red thing started in California and was only adopted in the east after the 70s oil embargos.

    In Providence right-turns-on-red should absolutely be banned. The only possible exception is perhaps in the least dense edges of the city, which are few.

  • Matt,

    I’ve only been to Pittsburgh a couple of times, but in the Philly area I got the impression that there was a state law that allowed the turns, but that local communities had the ability to override it by putting up signs. Almost every signalized intersection I remember had a sign that said no right turn on red above it. The reason I remember this is I remember as a kid asking my mom why they would spend the money to put a sign up at every intersection if it was always illegal, and she said she thought maybe out in rural areas you could do it.

    But I’m not sure. . .

    My take on the cameras is that they definitely ought not to bother the ACLU (I am also a member, although I think lapsed in my dues) because it’s the sort of thing a police officer would be able to see without infringing on the 4th Amendment. I’m very against things like stop-and-frisk, because you should have a right to privacy on your own person, or within your car, house, etc., but you certainly can’t claim any privacy to how you drive. Everyone can see it plainly. The only difference is that to have camears means that you have a verifiable record, and it’s not a matter of a cop’s word against a driver’s.

  • A big thing they ought to do is remove the rounded curbs at the I-95 crossings by connecting them to the pedestrian islands and making them a hard 90 degree curb that people have to slow down to turn at. At Atwells this is particularly funny to me, because the city has even installed a sign that says to yield to pedestrians when making a right turn, but the construction of the sidewalk says otherwise. I think the sidewalks are often designed that way around I-95 in general, along North Main, and along Memorial Blvd., too.

  • On the matter of “magic paint” and crosswalks without signals, I think the *indignant* pedestrian creates far more hazard for everyone than the oblivious or distracted ones. I live near Brown, but work near MIT in Cambridge, where my job has me walking between several buildings on my company’s urban campus. In Providence, I’ve had College Hill pedestrians look right at me driving towards them as they step off the curb into their mid-block-no-signal-no-stop-sign force field. It’s a nose-thumbing move to be sure, but really dumb, especially if I have a line of cars behind me.

    In Cambridge, where drivers are rightfully wary of getting tickets, they will stop short – screeching tires and all – if a pedestrian even looks like she’s contemplating crossing at one of these crosswalks without signals. (So misunderstood is the law, I often see drivers giving pedestrians the right of way at mid-block cross-walks that actually HAVE signals when the light is clearly in favor of the road traffic.) As a pedestrian in Cambridge, I’ve taken to standing way back on the sidewalk before crossing, just so my look of anticipation doesn’t create the hazardous situation I’ve seen play out too many times: From the near side of the crosswalk, a driver stops short, leaving himself open to being rear-ended, and endangering himself, the drivers behind him, and the pedestrian to whom he is giving he right of way. From the other direction, the driver continues, leaving the pedestrian wide open to being hit anyway.

  • per Merriam Websters:

    Indignity: a. An act that offends against a persons dignity or self respect, see Insult. b. humiliating treatment.

    The nerve. Indignant Pedestrians, acting up, 100 years into the automobile age. Will they ever surrender?

  • Barb:
    What your pointing out is bad driver behaviour, and pedestrians are expected to pay for it, through being relegated to second class users of the built environment, and in the worst case, with our lives.

    In an urban environment, or any environment really, drivers are supposed to drive at a prudent speed, leaving enough space between them and other cars to stop when needed. This is why the following driver is always at fault in a rear-end accident, there’s is no pointing of fingers and crying, “but she stopped short!”

    If drivers were using the streets properly, and if the streets were built to help encourage drivers to use streets properly, rather than for maximum speed and throughput as they are, it would be a minor inconvenience when pedestrians stepped off the curb to stop ones car, it would not result in a block long chain reaction of rear-end accidents.

    Our reality is that drivers do not operate prudently and instead of creating conditions to force them to do so, we’ve created an environment that accommodates their transgressions and allows for pedestrians only after all the needs of the driver have been met. And a society where it is always assumed the pedestrian is at fault.