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.