Crosswalk with yellow stripes

How to Define a Crosswalk? Minnesota Drivers Unsure

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in Minnesota Reformer and is reprinted with permission.

“Every corner is a crosswalk.”

That was the message from the Minnesota Department of Transportation a few years ago, succinctly attempting to summarize state pedestrian law. 

But apparently most drivers didn’t get the message.

A recent draft paper posted by researchers at the University of Minnesota found that drivers in the state failed to yield to pedestrians at unsignaled crosswalks — meaning those not governed by traditional traffic lights — nearly 60% of the time. The researchers did this by setting up cameras at 18 different intersections across the state in the summer of 2021, capturing more than 3,300 interactions between drivers and pedestrians.

It’s the largest dataset of its kind, according to the researchers, and it may prove to be tremendously useful for other academics and urban planners looking for ways to make roadways safer. Each year around 50 pedestrians are struck and killed by vehicles in Minnesota, and many more are injured.

The Statutory Definition

One of the more vexing problems in pedestrian safety is the definition of a “crosswalk.” In Minnesota, the statutory definition includes both the familiar crossings demarcated by painted stripes, as well as any “portion of a roadway ordinarily included with the prolongation or connection of the lateral lines of sidewalks at intersections,” regardless of whether it’s marked in any way.

The law is also unequivocal about how drivers are supposed to behave at such intersections: “Where traffic-control signals are not in place or in operation, the driver of a vehicle shall stop to yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within a marked crosswalk or at an intersection with no marked crosswalk” (emphasis added).

But in practice, very few do: Of the roughly 1,000 interactions the researchers filmed at unmarked crossings, for instance, drivers yielded only about 10% of the time.

Drivers behaved better at the standard crosswalks marked by two horizontal lines extending across the roadway. Of the roughly 1,400 interactions observed, drivers successfully yielded about two-thirds of the time.

Crosswalk photo courtesy of Wikimedia under Creative Commons

A different marking style known as the “continental” treatment — the familiar series of short white lines — performed more poorly, with drivers yielding only about one-third of the time.

Close Calls, But No Collisions

Part of these differences, however, may also be due to the many other factors that the researchers found affected driver yielding rates. Yielding was better in areas with more pedestrian traffic, narrower roadways, fewer lanes and physical signs indicating the existence of crosswalks. These factors point to the role of public policy choices in making life safer for pedestrians: Narrower roadways and fewer lanes create a safer environment for walking, which encourages more people to travel on foot, which makes walking safer still. 

One bit of good news in the study: Nobody in any of the observed interactions actually got struck by a car. But there were 16 close calls when either the driver or the pedestrian had to make a rapid evasive action in order to avoid a collision. 

Municipalities can make crossings safer by marking them to make it clear that crosswalks exist there. Regardless of what the law says, “unmarked” crosswalks are effectively invisible to drivers and dangerous to pedestrians.

Minnesota Reformer is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Minnesota Reformer maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Patrick Coolican with questions: Follow Minnesota Reformer on Facebook and X (formerly Twitter).

About Christopher Ingraham

Christopher Ingraham covers greater Minnesota and reports on data-driven stories across the state for the Minnesota Reformer. He's the author of the book "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now," about his family's journey from the Baltimore suburbs to rural northwest Minnesota. He was previously a data reporter for the Washington Post.