"A lot can go wrong when a pedestrian tries to cross the street where there is no signal or stop sign," Koepsell explains. "A driver is legally required to stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk, but this doesn't always happen. Yet the pedestrian may assume it's safe to cross."
The presence of several lanes of traffic complicates the situation, as does turning traffic. The pedestrian may behave more defensively by waiting for big gaps in traffic, but older pedestrians, who walk more slowly, need more time to cross. Older adults are also more likely to have difficulty judging how large a gap in traffic they need.
"Putting a marked crosswalk at a certain location basically sends a message to two parties," Koepsell says. "It tells the pedestrian that this is a safe place to cross. The marked crosswalk also tells the driver to be cautious, because pedestrians may be crossing the street here. But that message doesn't always register with the driver."
The researchers hope that traffic engineers will use the study results to assess the possible effects of crosswalk markings on the safety of a vulnerable group of pedestrians older adults. More crosswalks may not be better, when there are no traffic signals or stop signs to halt traffic.
For older pedestrians, the message is that a marked crosswalk doesn't necessarily identify a safe place to cross. When possible, they should cross where there's a signal or sign. If they do need to cross a street where there's free-flowing traffic, they'd be wise to use special caution and not place too much reliance on a marked crosswalk to protect them.