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People who drive expensive cars are less likely to yield to pedestrians, study finds

Summit and Lexington Avenues, St. Paul
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
During the study, for every $1,000 increase in a car’s value, the odds that the driver would yield fell by 3 percent.
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.

Key findings

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.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by David Markle on 02/27/2020 - 11:04 am.

    Perhaps owners of expensive new cars might tend be more sensitive to liability issues. More to lose, more insurance-conscious.

  2. Submitted by John Evans on 02/27/2020 - 12:13 pm.

    I suppose we should be skeptical of a single study that confirms our impressions and validates our biases. But it sure is nice to hear someone say it out loud.

  3. Submitted by Brent Stahl on 02/27/2020 - 12:32 pm.

    This study is so limited that it is annoying that Ms. Perry reports it and draws such sweeping conclusions.

  4. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 02/27/2020 - 12:48 pm.

    Funny, riding my bicycle around the city for the last 25 years I just assumed more expensive cars didn’t function properly. You rarely see them signal their turns, so obviously they don’t have functioning blinkers. They roll, or blast through, stop signs and narrowly miss pedestrians, obviously their brakes don’t function properly. They rarely yield the right of way and will cut you off in traffic, obviously their windows and mirrors don’t function properly. Now I am shocked to learn that “the drivers of the more expensive cars [feel] a sense of superiority over others on the road..”

    Wow. Who woulda thunk it?

  5. Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 02/27/2020 - 01:15 pm.

    Interesting, but the study did not address a couple of factors that jumped out at me:

    First, was the vehicle a “performance” oriented vehicle or a luxury vehicle?

    Second, did the age of the driver factor at all?

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/27/2020 - 01:53 pm.

    Not sure I’m qualified to assess the emotional / psychological state of the drivers of expensive cars, though I don’t doubt the conclusion about high-end vehicles – as a general rule of thumb. What I don’t see mentioned in the study is what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, prior experience. It occurs to me that drivers of expensive cars might be (I’ve done no research on this, so it’s purely speculation) less likely to have had very much experience as pedestrians themselves, as opposed to someone driving a 10-year-old base model of whatever brand.

    The pedestrians I’ve seen around the lakes in Minneapolis have a much higher proportion of people dressed in their workout clothes, out for a run before or after work, than in my own neighborhood, where pedestrians are usually on their way to the bus stop, or school, or work. For the first group, being a pedestrian is more closely tied to recreation. For the second group, it’s much less so.

  7. Submitted by William Duncan on 02/27/2020 - 02:23 pm.

    Finally some science to back up the obvious. Driving an old vehicle too, it is easy to see how many of the drivers in the most expensive vehicles act like they are the only ones on the road.

    Economics generally works like that too. The top ten percent of Americans on the whole left and right have little to no idea what life is like for the working poor. Hence the rise of Trump and Bernie, the only national politicians in two generations to speak directly to us (of those two of course, who would be more likely to stop for pedestrians?)

  8. Submitted by Mark Kulda on 02/27/2020 - 05:34 pm.

    One thing that is not mentioned in the study is seeking how the drivers learned how to drive. I think this is much more of a critical factor than simply their socioeconomic status. which is what the study infers.
    I also think its wrong to infer SES just based on age, make and model of the car. There are plenty of people who are not high class who drive nicer cars because they make a nice car a priority but are not high income. This is an attempt to further vilify the ‘rich’ and using a poor proxy for it.

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 02/28/2020 - 08:06 am.

      I think you’re confusing High Class and Upper Class. For instance our President’s income would put him in the Upper class, but no would could ever argue that he is High Class or that he has any class whatsoever for that matter.

  9. Submitted by Brian Scholin on 02/28/2020 - 07:09 am.

    I spent a summer doing research on rural roads on my bicycle, and came to similar conclusions. The fancier (also larger, louder, and brighter colored) the vehicle, the less likely it was to pass me safely. I hardly had to worry when approached by a dirty older Toyota, or a dark-colored Ford, but learned to head toward the ditch when I saw an Audi/Mercedes, any “sports car”, a gigantic SUV, or a shiny chromed pickup with loud exhaust approaching. The outlier was minivans. Even those that fit my “safe passer” profile seldom gave me space.

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