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Pedestrians are safer in numbers

April 24, 2010
Adirondack Daily Enterprise

In our rural North Country communities, pedestrian safety seems to always be an issue. We continually complain of motorists not yielding to pedestrians when the law requires it. As pedestrians, we may stand at the curb, waiting to cross a street, and vehicles just don't seem to notice.

If the above is your impression, you are most likely correct. Furthermore, on a per capita basis, we actually do have a higher vehicle pedestrian accident rate than do large cities.

There is actually a "safety in numbers" phenomenon of traffic, as described by Peter Lyndon Jacobsen, a public health consultant in California, and presented in the book by Tom Vanderbilt entitled "Traffic, Why We Drive the Way We Do." Jacobson's research found that as the number of pedestrians or cyclists increases, the injury or fatality rates per capita begin to drop. He found that it's not that pedestrians act more safely in numbers but rather the behavior of drivers that changes. They are suddenly seeing pedestrians everywhere, and the more they see, typically, the slower they drive, and the slower they drive, the more pedestrians they see because the pedestrians stay within sight for a longer period.

To prove this theory, think of the tens of thousands of pedestrians daily in New York City. Although more pedestrians are killed by cars there than anywhere else in the United States, when you consider how many pedestrians it has, it is actually one of the safest cities in the country for walkers, as pointed out by Vanderbilt in his book on traffic.

Walking frequently in downtown Montreal, I, the author of the weekly "Did You Know" articles, understand what Jacobson's research is saying. It is much easier to cross streets in a busy city than it is in Malone. In Montreal, along with all large cities, there is no "pedestrian only" phase at intersections. Traffic moves simultaneously with pedestrians, and therefore, any vehicle turning at a busy corner must conflict with pedestrians. However, because there are many pedestrians, the vehicles expect to wait for a break in pedestrian traffic before turning.

However, in our small villages, there is often only one pedestrian at a time. With so much traffic, a lone pedestrian is barely noticed by motorists trying to process all the other distractions of busy streets, traffic signals, lane changes, multiple entrances and exits to businesses along the route, and yes, even pedestrians. And, we haven't even counted the other distractions, such as cell phones, radio and CDs, GPSs, eating and primping that happens altogether too much, taking concentration away from the main task of driving safely.

The lesson here, as stated by Tom Vanderbilt: "When you see more of something, you're more likely to see that thing."

Know the laws and be a safe, courteous driver or pedestrian. For more traffic safety information, go to

Dave Werner can be reached at



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