I see red

This post is a slight revision of a couple of previous posts that I had on another blog. The intended purpose of that blog was to comment occasionally about infrastructure issues affecting pedestrians in the UK, as I believe that pedestrians are very often unfairly discriminated against in favour of motor transport in the way our roads are designed. However, I wasn’t able to devote enough time to the project to make it worthwhile, and it seems to make more sense to just have one blog where I might talk about pedestrian issues from time to time alongside other things of personal interest (e.g. linguistics).

The starting point was an article in the Cambridge News, now sadly removed from the online archive as has happened to most older articles on the side. The article was about a UKIP campaigner complaining about a particular type of pedestrian crossings called “puffin crossings”, a matter which happens to be close to my own heart. The most salient feature of these is that the “pedestrian signals” – the red and green man – are on little yellow boxes on stands on the pavement, designed to be viewed from the side you are crossing from. This contrasts with the traditional “pelican crossing” design where the red and green man are displayed on the opposite side of the road at the same height as the traffic lights, facing you as you walk toward them. (Puffin and pelican crossings differ in other ways which I’ll get back to later. Apparently some puffin crossings do have farside signals, but these aren’t very common.)

Now I don’t often concur with the things UKIP people like to get incited about, but on this issue I am fully in agreement. I find nearside signals extremely annoying, because they require me to turn myself to face in a direction I don’t want to go, which is far from ideal. Sometimes I do just turn my head, but a lot of the time I find that can be quite literally a pain in the neck. And some of the time, as this UKIP guy points out, you can’t see them at all, because there are people in the way. I usually just end up watching the traffic lights side-on waiting for them to go red.

(I am aware of at least one set of signals so badly placed that you have to face away from the road entirely to see them change. This may come up in a future post, if I ever get around to writing it.)

Anyway, the county council’s response to all this, according to the News, is that “Puffin crossings have been proven to be around 20 per cent safer than pelican crossings“.

Unfortunately it is difficult to know where the “proof” that puffin crossings are 20% safer has come from. Looking online I can’t find a great deal, but one study that gets referred to repeatedly is the imaginatively named Puffin pedestrian crossing accident study, by Maxwell et al. (2011) (you’ll have to sign up to read it but that seems to be quite easy). So, what does this study actually find?

Well, it does report that when pelican crossings are replaced by puffin crossings the newer type show fewer “accidents”. The overall reduction in accidents across both types of crossing studied is 19%. Accidents involving pedestrians are reduced by 24%, which is “statistically significant at the 10% level” (i.e. not really all that significant, although the authors don’t say this explicitly). Accidents involving pedestrians were reduced by 39% at junctions and 22% elsewhere, which the authors do explicitly acknowledge aren’t statistically significant results. This is not, therefore, the most convincing set of data you will ever encounter.

Even if we do accept that puffin crossings are safer for pedestrians, why is this? It may be that, by placing the red and green men to encourage people to look towards oncoming traffic, you make them less likely to step out in front of an oncoming vehicle: but even the authors of this study admit that this is “indicated but not fully proven”. (This logic seems somewhat flawed to me, in any case. You might be more likely to notice cars on your side of the road, but at the same time you are surely less likely to notice them coming the other way, so it’s not at all clear that you are necessarily less likely to get hit on account of the signal position.)

It may well be that puffin crossings are safer for reasons entirely separate from the presence of the nearside pedestrian signals. Puffin crossings also differ from pelican crossings in that only the older style have a “flashing green man” phase, which according to the study do seem to be an important contributory factor in accident rates. And puffin crossings are fitted with detectors to allow the red traffic light to stay red until pedestrians have finished crossing, which you would also expect might contribute to a lower accident rate.

So it may be entirely wrong to claim that nearside signals make a crossing safer. There is a strong possibility that it is the other advantages of the puffin design that are responsible for the reduced rate of accidents – assuming the rate of accidents really is reduced, which as we have seen is not as clear as we might like it to be.

It seems to me that the county council’s response is a flawed one based on misunderstanding or over-interpretation of the data. There is no clear reason to suppose that nearside signals are better than farside ones.

To compound matters further, consider this article (like the last one, you’ll have to sign up with the website to read it, but that doesn’t seem to be too tricky). Its title is Trials of farside pedestrian signals at a Puffin crossing, which is fairly self-explanatory. The authors find (p. 69):

Overall, the effects shown in this study of the introduction of a farside signal at a Puffin crossing were neutral or negative, except for the pedestrians’ stated [p]reference for the modified arrangement.

I would have thought that if an arrangement is preferred by the very people it is designed for this is a very strong argument in its favour! However, the authors don’t make a big thing of this.

The negative effects in question seem to be (p. 61):

  • people perceived a longer delay before the green man phase;
    (Nb. this is not to say there actually was a longer delay.)
  • increased uncertainty about when you should start to cross, and reduced understanding of the signals;
    (This seems odd to me, as surely the signals are pretty self-explanatory; possibly it relates primarily to confusion during the “blackout period” when neither a red nor a green man is displayed – I wonder if something could be done about this,)
  • fewer people “strongly agreeing” that it is easy to see the red/green men while starting to cross.
    (Once you factor in people “agreeing” as well as “strongly agreeing”, though, the modified arrangement comes out slightly on top.)

Also pedestrians were less likely to look left and right before and during crossing (p. 62). This might be thought to make things more dangerous, though note that this has not – as far as I am aware – been conclusively demonstrated. In any case, a slight increase in danger may be a reasonable trade-off for a large increase in convenience: and perhaps our main focus should be on the criminal drivers putting people’s lives at risk by jumping red lights! Ideally, if the green man is displayed, there should be no need for a pedestrian to look at all (except perhaps for a police car or ambulance with its sirens on, which most people would notice even without looking) – but of course we know drivers do not always follow the rules.

One major advantage of nearside signals which I had not previously thought of is that they may be easier for people with various types of disabilities. However, this doesn’t mean that farside signals shouldn’t be present as well, as they were here. (I suppose a disadvantage of having both would be that it is more expensive.)

So ultimately there may be some slight disadvantages of having farside signals, but I am still not convinced there is a strong argument against them, and it does seem I’m not alone in preferring them.

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