Drivers of expensive cars are less likely to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks than people driving lower-priced cars, according to a study published in the March issue of the Journal of Transport & Health.
The study also found that drivers, regardless of the cost of their car, are more likely to yield for women and whites than for men and people of racial and ethnic minorities.
“Pedestrians are facing some challenges when it comes to safety, and it’s really concerning,” says Courtney Coughenour, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of public health at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in a released statement.
“Drivers need to be made aware that they legally have to yield,” she added. “It’s hard to say whether they’re not yielding because they don’t know the laws or because they don’t want to yield.”
A worsening trend
As background information in the study points out, pedestrian crashes are a major public health concern. And they are on the rise. A total of 6,283 pedestrians were killed on U.S. roadways during 2018 — the highest number since 1990 and 35 percent more than were killed a decade earlier, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Forty-five of those pedestrian deaths in 2018 were in Minnesota.
About 80 percent of pedestrian deaths occur in urban areas, but such deaths are also higher in counties with high rates of urban sprawl.
Men are twice as likely to be killed in a pedestrian crash as women. The statistics also reveal racial and ethnic disparities. The pedestrian death rate is highest for American Indians/Alaska Natives (3.99 per 100,000 population), followed by blacks (2.99 per 100,000), Hispanics (2.53 per 100,000) and whites (1.83 per 100,000).
“Driver bias related to race and gender may be one understudied factor in the high pedestrian crash rates in these populations,” write Coughenour and her co-authors.
Indeed, previous field experiments contacted on streets in downtown Portland, Oregon, and in an urban sprawl area of Las Vegas found that significantly more cars fail to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks when the people on foot are black than when they are white.
Research has also suggested that class bias plays a role. One California study found, for example, that higher income drivers (as indicated by the make, age and appearance of their vehicle) are more likely than other drivers to cut off pedestrians at a marked intersection.
Coughenour and her co-authors conducted their study to further examine how the yielding behavior of drivers differs based on the gender and skin color of the pedestrian as well as on the estimated cost of the car.
“It is important to understand the factors that might influence disparate pedestrian crash rates in order to best intervene and minimize the associated negative health implications,” they explain.
How the study was done
For the study, four research volunteers — a black woman, a white woman, a black man and a white man — acted as pedestrians attempting to cross a street at a marked intersection in the Las Vegas metropolitan area. Two different crosswalks were used, and the four volunteers wore matching red T-shirts.
The experiments took place between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. on a Saturday and a Sunday in June. The speed limit on the roads was 35 miles per hour.
“The pedestrians would approach the crosswalk and step at least one foot off of the curb to indicate a clear intent to cross the roadway,” the researchers explain. “The participants would then attempt to make eye contact with the driver and observe the speed of the approaching vehicle. If they were sure the vehicle was going to yield, they would then enter the roadway into the marked crosswalk, continuing to ensure that all approaching traffic from subsequent lanes also yielded.”
They took these actions only when no other pedestrians were nearby and when no cross-traffic was present.
Videotapes collected during the experiments were used to analyze whether or not a vehicle yielded for the pedestrian as well as to estimate the cost of each car (using Kelly Blue Book pricing).
Of the 461 cars included in the analysis, only 28 percent yielded to the pedestrians.
As other studies have found, the cars yielded less frequently for both men and black pedestrians. Drivers stopped 31 percent of the time for both the women and the white volunteers. That compared with 24-25 percent of the time for the men and the black volunteers.
But the most significant predictor of yielding behavior was the cost of the car. For every $1,000 increase in the car’s value, the odds that the driver would yield fell by 3 percent.
That finding is consistent with earlier research on driving behavior — as well as with studies that have suggested that wealth induces unethical behavior and that people with higher social-class standing tend to have increased feelings of entitlement and narcissism.
One potential explanation for their study’s findings, therefore, is that the drivers of the more expensive cars felt a sense of superiority over others on the road, Coughenour and her colleagues say.
“Similarly, individuals of lower socioeconomic status may empathize more with the pedestrians,” the researchers add.
Limitations and implications
The study was small and took place at only two crosswalks in a single metropolitan area. The findings may not be applicable to drivers in other areas. In addition, the study didn’t ask drivers why they failed to yield to the pedestrians.
Still, as already noted, these findings are consistent with those from earlier research, including a Finnish study published just last month.
It found that men who drive a flashy, expensive car tend to be self-centered, argumentative, stubborn, disagreeable and unempathetic.
“These personality traits explain the desire to own high-status products, and the same traits also explain why such people break traffic regulations more frequently than others,” said the author of that study.
FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the University of Nevada study on the website for the Journal of Transport & Health, but the full study is behind a paywall.