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Last week, the Ellsworth City Council rejected a project to paint several downtown crosswalks in rainbow colors. The project was proposed by Ellsworth High School students as a show of support for the local LGBTQ community.
Three councilors voted against the project because they argued that painting the crosswalks a color other than white could impair pedestrian safety. The council voted to study the safety of multicolored crosswalks.
We appreciate the students’ work and the councilors’ concern and hope they’ll take a more serious look at crosswalk and pedestrian safety in general.
Last year, according to data from the Maine Department of Transportation, 17 pedestrians died after being struck by vehicles. That was three times the number who died in 2018, and slightly higher than the average for the previous four years, which was 12 pedestrian fatalities a year.
Nationally, the number of pedestrian deaths in 2018 was the highest in almost three decades, according to a Governors Highway Safety Association study.
There are many reasons for vehicle-pedestrian crashes, but not respecting crosswalk rules is a common one. State law requires that motorists “yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian who is crossing within a marked crosswalk or to a pedestrian who has shown visible intent to enter the marked crosswalk.”
Too often, this is not happening. According to data from MDOT, 301 pedestrians were hit while using crosswalks between 2014 and 2018.
Clearly, crosswalks alone, no matter what color they are painted, have not been effective at protecting pedestrians.
The Federal Highway Administration has warned cities, including Ames, Iowa and Lexington, Kentucky, that artful crosswalks are not as safe as the standard white ones. However, when asked by The New York Times to provide data to back this up, the agency did not produce any.
“The thing that gets under my skin, personally is that this response from FHWA is not really grounded in any data,” Michael Lydon told the Times. Lydon is a founder of the urban design firm Street Plans, which works with community groups to develop street art projects.
“There are hundreds around the country, if not thousands around the world,” he said of artistic crosswalks. “And I don’t know of any study that has been able to show that they are actually causing any problems.”
The Maine Department of Transportation does allow crosswalks to be painted with rainbow colors, though it has some design restrictions and only allows such custom designs where the posted speed limit is 25 mph or less. Rainbow sidewalks have been painted in Bangor, Orono and South Portland.
What studies — and federal and state data — do back up is that crosswalks alone, no matter what pattern they are painted, aren’t adequate to protect pedestrians.
A 1972 study, for example, found that pedestrians were more likely to be hit at the end or middle of a crosswalk, not at the beginning. This indicated, nearly 50 years ago, that drivers were failing to yield to pedestrians even when crosswalks were present.
More recently, a 2005 Federal Highway Administration study found that crosswalks on their own were largely ineffective at preventing pedestrians from being hit by vehicles. Coupling crosswalks with signs, speed bumps and other features to call drivers’ attention to them made the crosswalks more effective.
As Stephen Landry, Maine’s state traffic engineer, explained to the Bangor Daily News editorial board in an email, crosswalks — no matter what color they are — are only two dimensional. “When there is traffic in front of you, it is kind of hard to see a painted crosswalk no matter its color,” Landry said. “Crosswalk conspicuity is enhanced by the use of signs, which are three dimensional. The added verticality adds to the ability to understand that there is a crosswalk ahead and it can be seen for the most part over adjacent traffic. Crosswalk signage can then be further enhanced by adding lights to the signage for further conspicuity.”
No matter what color crosswalks are, motorists, especially in downtown areas with pedestrians, need to slow down, put down the cellphone (that is state law now), and pay attention to the road and what is around them.