A study to examine driver behavior in permitted left turns
has identified what researchers call an “alarming” level of risk to pedestrians
crossing the street – about 9% of the time, drivers don’t even bother to look
and see if there are people in the way.
A "protected” left turn, is a solid green arrow that gives a driver the complete right of way in a left-turn lane.
The danger is much higher than had been realized, experts say.
“There are far more pedestrian crashes in marked crosswalks than anywhere else on roads, and pedestrians have a false sense of security,” said David Hurwitz, an assistant professor of transportation engineering at Oregon State University. “This study found that one key concern is 'permitted' left turns.”
As they wait to turn left, sometimes taking a narrow opportunity to lunge into a stream of oncoming traffic, drivers focus most of their attention on the vehicular traffic and the traffic signal rather than pedestrians crossing the street. The heavier the traffic, the less attention paid to pedestrians.
In a controlled analysis in a full-scale driving simulator that monitored specific eye movements, the engineers found that about one time in 10 or 20, the driver didn’t even look to see if a pedestrian was there before moving into the intersection. This suggests a major level of risk to pedestrians, if they assume that drivers not only will look for them, but will allow them to cross the street.
The problem is aggravated by “permitted” left turn signals that vary widely from state to state and sometimes even from one city to the next. Such turns might be allowed by a circular green light, a flashing circular yellow light, a flashing circular red light, or even a flashing yellow arrow. More consistent national standards regarding the flashing yellow arrow were recommended as recently as 2009, but the process of upgrading signals across the nation takes time.
The danger is sufficiently high such that more states and cities should consider prohibiting "permitted" left turns while pedestrians are allowed to be in the crosswalk. In Washington County, Ore., traffic managers recently did just that, after receiving a high number of complaints about pedestrian-vehicle conflicts. The jury is still out regarding the results of this change.