The Case for Being a Defensive Pedestrian

Pedestrians are becoming bold, and they should be. They are boldly speaking out at council meetings and planning board sessions, demanding more and safer pedestrian crossings. They are, in some cases, joining forces with bicyclists and advocating for bike lanes that will give cyclists a safe alternative to sidewalks.

Bold is good. But there is one place where being bold is not good for pedestrians. That’s inside those zebra-striped walkways that mark designated pedestrian crossings. Inside those crossings, the ones often marked by signs proclaiming that motorists must yield to pedestrians, bold is not good. As they approach and enter those crossings pedestrians should be tentative, defensive, and wary. The law says motorists must yield, but it doesn’t say they will yield.


A pedestrian was walking from the right in the crosswalk occupied by a car in this photo when he was struck by a pickup truck turning left from Prospect onto Washington.

On July 30 that point was demonstrated once again in Princeton, NJ. A 68-year-old man was in the marked crosswalk leading from the Princeton University campus across Washington Road to Prospect Avenue. Traffic in either direction on Washington was stopped by a red light. But a Ford F350 pickup truck on Prospect Avenue facing Washington had a green light, and the truck was turning left onto Washington Road, a path that led directly across that crosswalk. For whatever reason (I’ve made inquiries to both town and county officials for more information) the truck hit the pedestrian. He went flying, hit his head on the pavement, and died of his injuries on August 1.

The phrase “once again” deserves some context. In November, 2014, a 58-year-old woman walking in the crosswalk at Nassau Street and Vandeventer-Washington Road intersection was struck by an SUV making a left hand turn onto Vandeventer.

In April, 2015, a 25-year-old graduate student was attempting to cross Washington Road at the well marked crosswalk south of the traffic light at Ivy Lane. She was struck by a sedan (perhaps luckily for her a fairly small Prius), thrown 94 feet, and suffered two broken legs, a broken rib, and lumbar fractures, resulting in a hospitalization of 12 days, a month in a rehabilitation facility, and her withdrawal from the university for the rest of the semester.

In June, 2016, two Italian women attending a Princeton University meeting began to walk side-by-side across Nassau Street in the crosswalk opposite Palmer Square. As the women entered the crosswalk, an SUV coming from the left in the lane nearest the pedestrians, did not stop. The first woman hit was thrust onto the hood, into the windshield, and then thrown into a mid-air cartwheel before landing headfirst on the pavement. She was hospitalized for injuries to the face, head, and both legs, and required multiple operations, including repair of a fractured skull. The second pedestrian hit by the SUV ended up about 39 feet from the point of impact and was less seriously injured.

In October, 2017, a 62-year-old professor from Pittsburgh was walking on Nassau Street and entered the crosswalk at the intersection with Washington Road. As she was partway across the road a redi-mix concrete truck, turning left from Nassau Street onto Washington Road, struck and killed her. No criminal charges were filed.

Now, in the summer of 2019, there is once again a serious accident involving a pedestrian – the fifth in less than five years, the second fatality in less than two years, and all occurring within those carefully marked pedestrian crossings, where motorists must – it’s the law – must yield to pedestrians.

What can be done to stop these senseless attacks on the pedestrians of Princeton? The town has taken some action, installing flashing lights, which can be activated by a pedestrian, at several crossings. On University Place the crosswalk linking McCarter Theater to the bar and restaurant across the street consists of raised stone that make the pedestrian crossing serve also as a speed bump. The travel lanes for motorists are narrowed at that point, as well, so that people have a shorter distance before reaching the other side.

Other intersections deserve the cliché: accidents waiting to happen. Pedestrian advocates argue for a three-second lead time for pedestrians entering an intersection, so they can establish their presence in the crosswalk before motorists are allowed to proceed. At two Nassau Street intersections, Nassau and Witherspoon and Nassau and Harrison Street, motorists get the lead time, so that they can make left hand turns ahead of the oncoming traffic. An unaware pedestrian could be rudely surprised. And some intersections – but not all – feature “beg buttons,” which must be pushed in order to activate the pedestrians’ “walk/don’t walk” signals.

Pedestrians should put down their cell phones and look both ways before they enter a crosswalk; they should wait until they can see the whites of an approaching motorist’s eyes before they conclude that the driver is really stopping for them.

At the site of the most recent fatality, an immediate improvement would be the installation of an all-way walk signal. Since Prospect Avenue meets Washington Road in a T intersection, there are only two phases of lights needed for motorists. A third phase could be added, halting all traffic on both roads and allowing pedestrians to cross either road, or go diagonally across the intersection. Traffic on Washington Road would be delayed by the length of time allotted to the all-way walk signal. But motorists on Prospect, turning left or right, might actually move more efficiently since they would not compete with pedestrians in the crosswalks when the light is green. Pedestrians, particularly college students coming from all directions and heading toward their eating clubs on Prospect, might welcome the chance to cross diagonally.

What about the crosswalks themselves, those familiar black-and-white zebra stripes on the pavement? In the aftermath of this most recent fatality, a letter writer to a community newspaper suggested that “white stripes on a black street background camouflage the walker. For the driver a vertically-lined strip, as well as the associated median, gutter, and turn lines, obfuscate to some degree any figure upon it and this loss of discrimination is especially difficult in poor light. To be immediately alerted to whatever is on the intersection the pedestrian strip background must be uniform — not patterned — and it must be colored light to bright, white or yellow, better yet chartreuse since it is the color theme Princeton uses at pedestrian crosswalks already.”

The idea deserves consideration. But I worry that even more graphic crosswalks will lead to an even greater sense of security – false security — to pedestrians. I suggest instead that pedestrians follow the lead of some enlightened motorists, who consider themselves “defensive drivers.”

To that end I suggest that pedestrians put down their cell phones and look both ways before they enter a crosswalk; that they wait until they can see the whites of an approaching motorist’s eyes before they conclude that the driver is really stopping for them; and that, when they are safely through the intersection, look back at the driver and offer a thumbs up or – if they want to be bold – a big smile.

Drive defensively, walk defensively.