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Crossing Roadways at Night

Robert T. Lynch, P.E., Principal Collision Reconstruction Engineer

It is no secret. Pedestrians crossing a roadway at night can identify the headlights of an approaching vehicle much easier than it is for a driver to observe pedestrians. However, research on drivers’ recognition distances indicates that a vehicle operator can identify a pedestrian crossing right-to-left from a greater distance than a pedestrian crossing from left-to-right. This is largely due to the requirement for low beam headlights to be angled more toward the right side of the roadway to prevent unnecessary glare for oncoming vehicle operators (SAE J1383).

To put this in perspective, a vehicle being operated at 25 miles per hour at night requires approximately 100 feet of total distance for a driver to perceive a hazard, and then react to the hazard by applying full braking to come to a stop. The nighttime recognition distance research indicates that a pedestrian wearing dark clothing crossing left-to-right is not identified by the average driver until the vehicle is less than 100 feet away, rendering the incident unavoidable for the driver. On the other hand, a pedestrian wearing dark clothing crossing from right-to-left is identified by the average driver at a distance greater than 100 feet, allowing the driver enough distance to perceive, react and avoid the pedestrian. Pedestrians in light-colored clothing or retroreflective material are observed by drivers at greater distances.

When crossing a roadway at night, the drivers approaching your location from your left can see you from a greater distance than those approaching from your right. Regardless, it is best for a pedestrian to use safe practices when crossing a roadway at night and always assume that vehicle operators cannot see you. Wait for a sufficient clearance in traffic (from both directions), or ensure that the vehicles have stopped or are stopping to allow you to cross.

Robert T. Lynch, P.E., Principal Collision Reconstruction Engineer with DJS Associates, Inc., can be reached via email at experts@forensicDJS.com or via phone at 215-659-2010.

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    There is another reason why motorists often don’t see a pedestrian crossing from the motorist’s left. As we drive, we focus narrowly on the lane ahead of us. A pedestrian may be in our field of vision, but our brain is ignoring that visual information.
    This is true day and night, but even more true at night.
    I believe this should be taught, and re-taught, and re-taught to everyone. The countermeasures are:
    • Pedestrians, be aware of this.
    • Motorists, be mindful of this tendency and broaden your scan. In particular, as you approach an intersection, look at each of the four corners long enough to notice any pedestrians who may enter the roadway.

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