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Douglas C. Lyons: Biased drivers give new meaning to road rage

Racism

Are South Florida motorists racist?

I didn't want to believe skin color plays a significant role in driving, particularly at a time when many are starting to believe our nation has somehow moved beyond race and racism. But, now I'm not so sure. There may be something to this behind-the-wheel-bias thing.

At least, that's what a study released this week from Portland State University suggests. The researchers wanted to see if the race of pedestrians using a marked crosswalk mattered to motorists. Conventional wisdom screams 'no.' The study results say something else.

Drivers, the study found, were less likely to stop for black pedestrians than white pedestrians, and black pedestrians waited longer to safely cross the street than their white counterparts.

"People are making these biased decisions but it's actually happening beneath our conscious awareness," Kimberly Khan, an assistant professor at PSU and one of the study's authors, said during an interview with a Portland television station.

Before blowing off the PSU study, consider this. Study after study shows drivers do play favorites when it comes to pedestrians. Motorists are more likely to brake for pedestrians seen as visibly disabled. They are less likely yield to any pedestrian if they drive high-status cars.

The bottom line is there are too many motorists who think yielding to pedestrians is more of a courtesy than a matter of law. Oregon law requires motorists stop after a pedestrian enters the crosswalk, but the PSU experiment wasn't interested in compliance with the law as much as the courtesy motorists paid to the pedestrians.

Oregon, thankfully, is no Florida, which sits atop the National Complete Streets Coalition's list of the most dangerous states to be a pedestrian. For the second time, Orlando, followed by Tampa-St. Petersburg, Jacksonville and South Florida, were the nation's worst areas to walk.

It's no surprise the Sunshine State tops the "pedestrian-death-index" rankings. Its communiities grew at a time when low-density neighborhoods relied on cars, highways and wide roads to connect residents with schools, jobs and other amenities Florida has to offer.

A closer look at the Coalition's "Dangerous by Design, 2014" report reveals the three groups of pedestrians most affected by pedestrian accidents: children, the elderly and people of color.

People of color — minorities — tend to be disproportionately represented among the pedestrian fatalities, according to the coalition's study which also was released this week. Blacks, the study found, have a 60 percent higher pedestrian fatality rate than whites.

The reasons behind the statistics vary, but, according to coalition report, blacks have higher rates of walking than whites. Where they walk is also a factor. Blacks and Hispanics tend to live in urban areas along busy streets and roads that can be dangerous for pedestrians.

Or, they can live in communties that don't have sidewalks. Thanks to inconsistent building codes and development, residents in many areas of South Florida are forced to walk in the street because their neighborhoods either lack sidewalks completely or have only intermittent stretches of sidewalks that begin and end with no sensible pattern.

Khan and her team wanted to see if drivers' attitudes about pedestrians and their race made a difference. They picked out a crosswalk along a busy thoroughfare near the campus and had six men — three black and three white — approach the crosswalk and cross the street.

With cameras rolling, the researchers observed how drivers reacted to the test subjects as they tried to use the crosswalk. It didn't take long to realize the obvious.

Khan believes the negative experiences could lead black pedestrians to adopt unsafe crossing behaviors or cause some to avoid walking altogether. Both are concerns traffic engineers and transportation planners who are attempting to help pedestrians should take seriously.

South Florida has enough to worry about, given our car-friendly street design, poorly marked crosswalks, narrow sidewalks, jaywalkers and aggressive drivers. And it will take years before our car-culture finally shares the road with pedestrians and other forms of transportation.

Now, pedestrians have to deal with biased drivers. Watch your step.

Douglas C. Lyons can be reached at dlyons@sunsentinel.com, or 954-356-4638. On Twitter@douginflorida.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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