When St. Louis decided not to maintain colorful new crosswalks that residents had painted, the city’s pedestrian coordinator cited federal guidance. A 2011 FHWA memo warns that colorful designs could “create a false sense of security” for pedestrians and motorists.
That may sound like unremarkable bureaucrat-speak, but the phrase “false sense of security” is actually a cornerstone of American engineering guidance on pedestrian safety.
What gives? Well, you can trace this phrase — and the basis of some engineers’ reluctance to stripe crosswalks — to one very influential but seriously flawed study from the 1970s.
In 1972, a researcher named Bruce Herms conducted a study of crosswalk safety in San Diego. He found that intersections with marked crosswalks had higher injury rates than ones with unmarked crosswalks. He concluded that marked crosswalks should only be installed where they are “warranted” because they can give pedestrians a “false sense of security,” encouraging risky behavior.
But there were problems with the study. For one, Herms didn’t actually study why people made certain decisions at crosswalks — that “false sense of security” was just speculation on his part.