Question answered: Why don’t Chicago drivers stop at crosswalks?

When it comes to actually following the law, there’s evidence that Chicago should put its mimes to it!

July 12, 2012

Shannon Heffernan

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Curious City: Why don't Chicago drivers stop for pedestrians at crosswalks? from WBEZ on Vimeo.

Crossing the street is one of those tasks that, sadly, isn't as straightforward — or safe — as it should be, at least to Chicagoans who feel threatened by impending traffic. We learned this after taking on our latest Curious City question, posed by Chicago native Marcy Phillips: 

“Why do Chicago drivers fail to stop for pedestrians at crosswalks?”  

A simple question? Not really, at least when you probe a bit. And, getting to the bottom of it led us to an experiment about what’s more effective: tough laws or a combo of wagging fingers, make-up and silent expressions.

First step toward an answer 

Let’s start with the law, which is actually pretty clear: In Illinois drivers must stop at any crosswalk where a pedestrian is present. And, any intersection is considered a crosswalk; it doesn’t need white markings in the street or even a pedestrian crossing sign. This “full stop” policy came about in 2010. Previously, Illinois drivers only had to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, not come to full stops.

I couldn’t find any evidence (statistical or academic) that Chicago drivers are less likely to follow crosswalk laws. In 2011, 32 people were killed in pedestrian accidents and over 3,000 were hit. Almost 80 percent of those accidents occurred in crosswalks.

That may seem high but, relative to cities with similar population density, Chicago’s numbers are actually low. Still, Chicago pedestrians who have lived in or visited other cities told us that Chicago drivers appear less likely to stop.

I wanted to see if the law was enforced, so I called the Traffic Division of the Chicago Police Department. Sergeant Brendan Carney said they do more than just enforce the law, they  actually stage weekly “crosswalk stings.”  

“A plainclothes police officer will step into a crosswalk and if the car doesn’t stop, a marked squad car will pull the car over and issue a $100 ticket,” said Carney.

At that cost, tickets would seem like a strong deterrent. But drivers still seem to ignore the crosswalk law, so the question remained: Why?

Come to think of it, why do we follow any laws at all?  

I called Tom Tyler, author of Why People Obey the Law. Tyler has conducted surveys and experiments about when people do and don’t follow laws. His conclusion? When most people follow a law, they’re not doing so out of fear of being punished. Instead, he said, most people follow the law because they believe they should follow the law.

Take the example of murder. According to Tyler, the reason everyday people don’t commit murder isn’t because they are afraid of prison. Most people don’t commit murder because they believe it’s morally wrong.

Problems arise when enough people don’t consider a law to be legitimate. Tyler says that’s why prohibition was so hard to enforce and even why police have trouble enforcing some current drug laws.

Tyler says traffic laws are particularly difficult to get people to follow: “They don’t feel a strong obligation driving them to follow the law.” But Tyler says it’s possible to create social and moral pressure about traffic laws.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Tyler said, was hugely successful at changing drunk driving behaviors. MADD put ads on the television and radio, educating people on the damage they could cause by drinking and driving. The campaigns encouraged people to exert social pressure with taglines like, “Friends don’t let friends drink and drive.”

“The police can’t be everywhere”, said Tyler, so it’s important to “create a culture” that encourages people to follow laws. And that’s what MADD did: It shifted the cultural landscape over the issue and drunk driving declined.

The Bogota example

So, if Chicago drivers don’t seem to experience enough social nudges and tugs to stop for pedestrians, are there drivers that do? I looked for cities where the methods Tyler writes about —  education, social legitimacy, and moral appeals — were used to change behavior around crosswalks.

The best example was in Bogota, Colombia. Bogota had a problem with traffic laws, including those that involve crosswalks. The city raised fines, but that didn’t help. Then, in the mid ‘90s mayor Antanas Mockus had an idea: traffic mimes.

Mayor Mockus hired 420 mimes to go around Bogota and encourage people to follow traffic laws. They gently mocked people that broke the laws and smiled and clapped for people who did. Surprisingly, it worked, and that led several other Latin American countries to replicate the tactic.

According to Tyler, Bogota’s mimes succeeded because they “communicated what the social norms were. They made people aware that others saw what they were doing and disapproved of their behavior.”

Chicago mimes for better traffic? 

Marcy Phillips’ question is about why Chicago drivers don’t stop for pedestrians. If we accept Tyler’s theory that drivers’ behavior suggests they’re not experiencing enough social pressure, why not test the idea that social pressure could come to the rescue?

I just couldn’t resist taking a page from Bogota and calling up a few mime companies to see if they’d run an experiment, albeit an unscientific one, along the same lines. Several were game, so volunteers from The Mime Company, Silent Theatre, and Dog and Pony Theatre Company gathered on a Monday morning at a crosswalk just south of the California Blue Line stop. (Full disclosure: My partner performs with The Mime Company.)

The mimes carried signs that said, “Mimes for Better Traffic” and “State Law: Stop for Pedestrians.” They escorted pedestrians across the street, tipping their hats and blowing kisses to drivers that stopped (see video above).  

Most drivers stopped. Some smiled and waved. But some drivers were angry and showed their disdain with their own one-figured mime gestures.

Still, the vast majority of pedestrians said they had an easier time crossing than usual. A nanny enthusiastically thanked the mimes after crossing with a baby carriage.

“I’m with this little girl and we cross here often, people never stop for us,” she said. “Sometimes I have to yell. But this is awesome. I could actually cross.”

One pedestrian who would only identify himself as “Justin,” noted “It was pretty hard to miss a mime.” He said when he drives, he always follows traffic laws because his sister was hit by a car.

But his adherence to crosswalk laws was unique, at least among the people we interviewed near the intersection that morning. Several people said, when they drive, they’re hesitant to stop, out of fear their car will get rear-ended.

Regarding Marcy’s question about why drivers don’t stop, our interviews yielded another anecdotal reason: Most people didn’t understand that stopping at crosswalks is the law.

In fact, one driver on the scene even called the police on our mimes. An officer stopped our production team mid-mime, asking what we were doing. After I explained the crosswalk experiment, he gestured behind me to the gaggle of mimes: “So they aren’t going to talk to me about it, huh?”

I said, “Well, they’re mimes.” He thanked us and left.

Overall our volunteer mimes deemed the experiment a success, though they doubted they were effecting some permanent change. Sitting in the park afterwards, they swapped stories of how elderly women, parents with children, and people in a hurry to work thanked them for making it easier to cross.

“This is what miming is actually supposed to do,” said Eliot Monaco of The Mime Company. “I felt like we actually did a public service.”

(The hyperlocal news site, Everyblock, caught sight of the mimes and some commenters suggested intersections where they’d like to see traffic mimes.)

Will City Hall apply social pressure?

I asked Gabe Klein, the commissioner of Chicago Department of Transportation, whether the city’s investing in any of the social measures that academics like Tyler suggest. It turns out, the issue’s on the city’s radar.  

Klein said the department already planted  32 mannequins around the city, representing the 32 pedestrians killed in 2011. They’ve also created poster ads downtown and launched an educational site. The department is working on a new pedestrian safety initiative, which Klein said is slated to go public in a few months. Klein said Chicagoans could expect to see more signs, more enforcement and more educational campaigns in the coming year.  

“I am interested in wholesale cultural change in the city of Chicago,” he said. “My goal is to have zero pedestrian deaths by 2020.”

As for our mimes? The city doesn’t have any future plans to deploy traffic mimes, but they can be at the ready if someone were to ask. 

By the numbers: Trouble for Chicago pedestrians

  • 3,000 Chicago pedestrians were hit by cars in 2011
  • 32 of them died
  • 78 percent of pedestrian hits by vehicles occurred when the pedestrian was within or adjacent to a crosswalk
  • In Chicago’s downtown, taxis were involved in 28 percent of pedestrian crashes
  • Pedestrians ages 15-18 are most likely to be hit

(statistics provided by the Chicago Department of Transportation)

By the numbers: Trouble for Chicago drivers

  • In 2011 Chicago police staged 60 crosswalk enforcement missions
  • Police issued 1,177 citations for "Failure to Yield to Pedestrian in Crosswalk"

(statistics provided by the Chicago Police Department)