Cognitive Daily

The last place I lived before small-town Davidson, North Carolina, was New York City. One thing that seemed extremely different to me when I moved from New York to Davidson was the behavior of pedestrians and drivers. In New York, drivers honk at you at a stoplight to remind you that the light’s going to turn green in five seconds, so you’d better get moving. In Davidson, it’s rude to honk for any reason other than to say “hello.”

Pedestrians, too, behaved differently. In New York, they seemed to openly defy cars, almost daring them to run them down. There’s a New York look that seems to say, “my brother’s a [lawyer/hit man/cop — insert relevant choice here] and I’m not afraid to use him.” In Davidson the look was more like “I’m sorry for being on the road, Mr. Earnhardt. I’ll try and be more respectful next time.”

So I expected to find some pretty dramatic individual differences in the responses to this week’s Casual Fridays study, which showed readers several scenarios involving a pedestrian trying to cross a street and asked them to imagine being the driver. For example, would you stop in this scenario?


94 percent of the survey respondents said they would, which is interesting, because Nora’s not related to a lawyer, criminal, or law-enforcement officer. But seriously, what we really wanted to find out is when people are more (or less) likely to stop.

One thing I had noticed in Davidson is that people seem less likely to stop for pedestrians if there are additional cars behind them. This is, ironically, the time you’d most like them to stop! Was the same true of our respondents? Each respondent was given one of four sets of instructions for the experiment. They were told to imagine driving at either 25 mph or 45 mph, and to imagine there were no cars behind them or four cars behind them. Did the condition matter?


There’s actually little difference in reported stopping behavior. Because we had over 1,200 respondents, this graph does show one significant result: people driving 25 mph were significantly more likely to stop if no cars were following than if four cars were following. But that’s it — driving faster didn’t matter, and at the higher speed, number of cars following didn’t matter either.

As you might expect, whether the pedestrian was in the street or on the curb mattered, as did whether or not she was at a marked crosswalk:


But did looking behavior matter? If the pedestrian looks at the driver, the driver could respond in one of two ways: “she sees me, so I don’t have to stop,” or “she wants to cross, so I should stop.” Did one or the other interpretation prevail for our group? Nope:


There was no significant difference in stopping behavior whether or not the pedestrian was looking.

What about peer pressure? Will drivers stop if they see others stopping? We asked drivers about this picture as well:


In one question, they were told that the approaching car was stopping, and in another, they were told it wasn’t stopping. They also saw a picture with Nora in the same position, but without the car. Here are the results:


Drivers were significantly less likely to stop if the oncoming car wasn’t stopping than if the other car was stopping. While the vast majority of respondents said they would stop, they were four times less likely to stop if the oncoming car didn’t look like it was stopping.

We also asked readers a little about themselves. Did living in a rural versus urban area affect their likelihood of stopping? No. But the distance you walked yourself was slightly (but significantly) positively correlated with stopping for pedestrians (r = .07). There was a stronger correlation between driving behavior and stopping. We asked drivers how fast they typically drove compared to the speed limit. People who said they drove faster were significantly less likely to stop (r = -.16)

Overall, the chances of stopping varied a lot from situation to situation. Was there a marked crosswalk? Did the pedestrian appear to be looking at the car? Was she on the left or the right? There may be some subtler differences in her attitude that weren’t really captured by the study, but this graph should give you some idea of the variance we’re talking about:


One more thing: I’m not sure if the responses to this study truly reflect real-world behavior. Nora and I took the photos for this study on a road where the speed limit was 35. There was quite a bit of traffic, and so we spent a long time standing on the roadside waiting for traffic to clear. Not one driver stopped for Nora.


  1. #1 Patricio
    December 5, 2008

    The same behavioral difference exists between Buenos Aires (population 10,000,000) and Mendoza (1,000,000), in Argentina. In Mendoza people are almost ashamed of crossing the street, while in Buenos Aires there is a certain defiance while doing so.

  2. #2 Idlethought
    December 5, 2008

    One thing that may have distorted things is the camera angle, camera lense, the fact that it was a still picture and the fact that none of the people answering the quiz were going anywhere. The reason I mention the camera is because depending on what sort of car people are used to, and the POV of the photo their perception of the speed vs distance might change. It might not, but I did find the quite high up POV unusual. As a result I might have been more cautious than I would have been otherwise – and that caution might make me stop when I normally wouldn’t have (because I’m not confident of the distance) or prevent me stopping (because I’m not confident of the comfortable braking distance)

    I know I answered differently than I might have done if I’d made different assumptions about the distances etc. I was also aware that my state of mind was not really the one I have when driving. Plenty of time to think, not thinking about anything else, not thinking about a route or an arrival time.

    One of the main reasons (as a 45mph question person) I didn’t ‘stop’ on some questions was because I felt I would have had to brake fairly hard (in my guesstimate from the picture) – something I tend to avoid doing for a number of reasons.

    However.. it’s likely that unless for some reason I hadn’t been able to see the pedestrian – I wouldn’t have been driving at 45mph, depending on the traffic behind me I’d have already been slowing (although perhaps not braking). If someone is close behind me, or not at all close I would probably braking gently, if they are a moderate distance I’d be less aggressive about slowing while I’m working a theory for what the pedestrian is planning.

    Of course, as you point out, what I think I might do could easily be different from what I would do when actually driving.

    That’s with my UK developed habits. I’ve driven enough in the US to suspect that with few roundabouts and many stop lights, my driving style does change – but not instantly.

    I hope that ramble makes some sort of sense.

  3. #3 Peter Turney
    December 5, 2008

    Did living in a rural versus urban area affect their likelihood of stopping? No.

    Perhaps it’s not how rural or urban your home is, but how rural or urban your location at the time of making the decision to stop or continue is. To test this hypothesis, you would need a second set of photos, taken, say, in Manhattan at rush hour.

  4. #4 Liggy Blough
    December 5, 2008

    I’m surprised that no one stopped for Nora when you took the pictures. In my opinion, I felt that most shots showed scenarios where most people should have stopped at least as a courtesy, even when they could not be so sure that she would cross.

    I suggest trying the experiment again with Nora wearing different apparel. See if people’s attitudes change if it looks like the pedestrian is a professional versus someone dressed casually. I wonder if that might make a difference. Or maybe try one where Nora is pushing a baby carriage.

  5. #5 gs
    December 5, 2008

    i think it might have to do with the intent of the pedestrians. in new york, many people walk to work in the morning (from their apt. or from the train) while it’s probably not very common in less densely packed areas. these people who are serious daily commuters might have a more get-where-i’m-going mentality compared to your casual strollers.

  6. #6 Kevin
    December 6, 2008

    I don’t think there was a single circumstance where I would have actually stopped, but many where I would have significantly slowed down. I think the reason people feel no need to stop to let someone cross the street in that sort of situation is because there doesn’t appear to be a great need to help them cross. The traffic levels are so low that just driving away will probably be enough to make the street safe to cross.

  7. #7 mary
    December 6, 2008

    Here are some more variables: college town or not (I live in Charlottesville, and perhaps many of the respondents live in academic communities full of dazed (or texting)undergrads who still think they are invulnerable. What if there is a child or two in the car– though responses might not match real-world behavior, ditto if driver is using cellphone. How about if you are a little late getting somewhere like work, vs cruising to the grocery store? How about whether Springsteen or Verdi is on the radio?

  8. #8 Ted
    December 6, 2008

    Where’s the data for when the pedestrian is staring you down with contempt as they stand two feet from the curb? That’s my favorite method to make sure cars stop.

  9. #9 Jeremy Labrecque
    December 6, 2008

    The diversity in the location of your respondents probably influenced the results. You may have been able to see difference patterns in different places but combining them makes many important patterns disappear.

    For example, I live in Montreal which is similar to NYC. Pedestrians put their lives on the line everyday but to be fair, it’s partially their fault. They cross (I’m included in this group) wherever they want whenever they want. They’ll run across the road in front of cars if they have to. Even crosswalks can’t be trusted here in Montreal.

    Go to Nova Scotia and it’s a whole different story. You can’t even look at the road without cars stopping. Seriously, when I was there I was careful how to position my glance and my body on the sidewalk so I didn’t make cars stop unnecessarily.

  10. #10 Luci
    December 6, 2008

    Another variation would be an inquiry to whether the drivers answering had ever been injured by a passing car (which makes for a feet powered conscious driving style by choosing the brake to the gas)
    Communication via body language and attentiveness of the pedestrian matters to walkers and drivers. Be smart vs pancaked.
    I’ve also noticed that different types of cars and drivers’ ages count toward estimating likely stoppers and non-stoppers. State law that motorists must stop seems to have little influence, even at well-marked crossings.

  11. #11 TJ
    December 6, 2008

    Interesting stuff!

    Building on comment #10, as a pedestrian, I am now more likely to yield to a bike, because I crashed my bike and broke my shoulder due to an inattentive pedestrian (and the fact that I braked with one hand, the wrong hand). But being a pedestrian commuter definitely makes me more likely to yield to / slow down for pedestrians when I’m driving! So I’m part of that slight correlation reported up there. :^)

  12. #12 Yu Haibo
    December 8, 2008

    The most important thing is how can we eliminate the social desirability?

    The data is true in reality ?

    In addition, I think add a condition, neither stop or non-stop , but slower.

    Hope reply to me soon

  13. #13 Kevin
    December 8, 2008

    Yeah, I bike around campus and on the streets from time to time and I know how frustrating it is to be stuck behind oblivious pedestrians and do my best to be courteous to bikes when I’m walking around. Also, having been biking a lot this summer I now pay more attention for bikes on the sidewalks and things when I’m driving. Goes to show that when you can picture it is YOU that you are cutting off/preventing from crossing the street or whatever you might change your actions.

  14. #14 BlueCrown
    December 8, 2008

    Did anyone think of the pedestrian standing and the driver? A middle-aged driver may be more likely to stop for a middle-aged woman than for a man. Age relationship, good looks and gender may be at play here. The fact that they used Nora in this experiment does not guarantee consistent result.
    But I don’t think such discrimination could be grasped by question-answer based experiment.

  15. #15 Eamon Nerbonne
    December 8, 2008

    Still pictures probably just don’t work well for this kind of test. Even if it were a video, it’d be tricky (since people watching the video would presumable be especially attentive and undistracted).

  16. #16 Dave Munger
    December 8, 2008

    Yeah, video would have been better — but it’s supposed to be a Casual Friday for me, too, and making a good video from a moving car is a lot of work!

  17. #17 Nora Miller
    December 8, 2008

    Having just returned from the funeral of my brother-in-law who was killed in a pedestrian crosswalk in Cambridge, MA, I may have a slightly different reaction to this survey than most folks. The person who killed my brother-in-law SAW him, looked away and then simply stepped on the gas. Perhaps if people did more than picture themselves merely preventing a person from crossing the street, but rather imagined themselves killing someone, they would be more likely to stop under ANY conditions.

    I see no justification for blaming the pedestrian. Sure pedestrians may sometimes appear inattentive, but in fact, THEY NEARLY ALWAYS HAVE THE RIGHT OF WAY and that means that those in or on vehicles have the responsibility for giving way. The day I heard about my brother-in-law’s death, I read an article in the Boston Globe about an epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the Cambridge area which suggested that more and more drivers simply have no concern or awareness about the consequences of their inattention.

  18. #18 Rob Biddle
    December 11, 2008

    It would be interesting to take the second scenario with the other car and change it so that the pedestrian is entering the street from the other side so that they are walking in front of the other vehicle first and see how that affects the results. I would think that this would increase the value of the variable (whether or not the other car is stopping).

  19. #19 DreamLibrarian
    December 20, 2008

    Although a highly fastidious driver, I don’t think I would have stopped for Nora, either. If one is at a zebra crossing (at least in some states), stepping into the crosswalk signals to the drivers that one wishes to cross. Someone just standing on the curb without stepping into the gutter isn’t signaling a desire to cross, in my view.

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