The game of life

We have another episode of “signs as toys.”

The city of Medford, Massachusetts earned a lot of media attention by putting school children in charge of traffic control. A picture shows a row of children standing behind a row of ramps. As I see it, drivers are supposed to hit the ramps and fly over the heads of the children.

Don’t do that. The “ramps” are optical illusions, crosswalk stripes with shadows to appear three dimensional. They will not launch you safely over pedestrians. The idea is you will see a big bump ahead, slam on the brakes, and get rear-ended by somebody who knows they are fake.

Medford officials are trying to trick drivers. It might work once. Drivers quickly learn how fast they can go over obstacles they encounter regularly. Most people in municipal government, including too many traffic engineers, are ignorant of human factors. Willfully ignorant, at least. If it’s what a constituent asks for it must be good.

The Federal Highway Administration has spent years looking at the true impact of modified crosswalks. The official policy of the DOT says crosswalks are not art projects.

No element of the aesthetic interior treatment can implement pictographs, symbols, multiple color arrangements, etc., or can otherwise attempt to communicate with any roadway user.

Fortunately, the local FHWA office is already involved. I hope somebody there can explain why crosswalks are not toys. Because the disease is spreading. Already the Worcester City Council voted to follow suit.

If Medford or any other city thinks fake 3D crosswalks are a good idea there is a process to follow to get permission to use them. They have to run a proper experiment to show the new crosswalk design works. They could start by hiring a civil engineering professor to…

Obviously a city is not going to hire an expert when the outcome is in doubt. This is a PR exercise. But let’s imagine somebody in Medford was serious about safety. The city would be required to submit

A detailed research or evaluation plan providing for close monitoring of the experimentation, especially in the early stages of field implementation. The evaluation plan should include before and after studies as well as quantitative data enabling a scientifically sound evaluation of the performance of the device.

What’s the performance measure? Everybody pushing these art projects is wrong. They want to reduce traffic speed. Traffic speed is not the performance measure unless the goal is to make drivers’ commutes longer.

If the goal is to build a better crosswalk, three obvious performance measures are accident rate, injury rate, and rate of yielding to pedestrians.

Reducing traffic speed can make these worse. Or better. Both results have been claimed. It depends on the circumstances. Measure what you really care about.

Aside from money, the second reason the city isn’t going to run a proper experiment is time.

How long does it take to figure out how good a crosswalk is? If the goal is to reduce accidents or injuries, many years. The busy suburban street where I used to live averaged less than one pedestrian injury per unsignalized crosswalk per decade. The rate around the Brooks school in Medford appears to be similar.

If you expect an accident every ten years, you need many accident-free decades to be confident your new design is safer. If you change 20 crosswalks and leave 20 alone you might get an answer in five years.

City councilors live in the moment. They aren’t going to spend dollars and years on a “maybe” when they can get favorable publicity now. Safety be damned, this feels good.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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One Response to “The game of life”

  1. Tom McCarey says:

    Every time the debate degenerates into emotional responses (“its for the children”) our side loses.

    Tom McCarey