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Who taught you to drive?

A few modest ideas to improve road safety

With the increasing number of bicyclists on local roads, is it time to include bicycle awareness on drivers’ road tests?

boston Globe/file 2002

With the increasing number of bicyclists on local roads, is it time to include bicycle awareness on drivers’ road tests?

If you drive through Davis Square in Somerville during the morning rush, you’ll see waves of pedestrians jaywalking across College Avenue on their way to the subway station. Why don’t they use the crosswalk that’s there? Because the crosswalk is actually dangerous.

Here’s what’s taking place. The crosswalk is a “mid-block” variety about 100 feet from the subway entrance. When the square’s lights turn red during rush hour, a line of cars backs up beyond the crosswalk, so that the crosswalk becomes sandwiched between idling cars. When larger vehicles such as trucks and SUVs sandwich the crosswalk, it’s like walking through a tunnel.

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Why is this dangerous? Because drivers on the opposite side of the road can’t see people in the crosswalk when they’re walking between vehicles. Only when a pedestrian emerges from the “tunnel” do you realize that someone is in the crosswalk, and by then, they’re halfway across the street, a step away from your vehicle.

For the past few years around this time (it’s the week of my birthday), I’ve proposed ways to change our driving landscape were I put in charge — birthday wishes, if you will. Correcting this crosswalk hazard would be one of them.

What if the crosswalk lighted up, from curb to curb, the moment a pedestrian stepped in it? Instead of painted “bars” in the crosswalk, you could have panels in the ground that would light up a bright red, a clear warning for drivers to stop even when they don’t see a pedestrian crossing the street.

I’ll take the idea a step further. What if signs were posted alerting drivers that they’d be on camera whenever the crosswalk was lighted red?

I can think of a few crosswalks (Massachusetts Avenue comes to mind) where large numbers of drivers refuse to stop for pedestrians. With lights and a camera, maybe that’d change.

Is my concept realistic, or just a writer’s dream? Let’s find out.

Light my way

Crosswalk lights aren’t a new concept. You can find them at Logan Airport, and I spotted some this spring in a little tourist town in Sonoma Valley. But in those intances, the lights are simple rows of flashing bulbs along crosswalk borders. My concept would be far flashier, and high-tech.

Gene Hawkins is an associate professor in the Zachry Department of Civil Engineering at Texas A&M University, and an authority on road signs and markings. He didn’t say, at least outright, that my idea was a bad one. Still, he said, it would be extremely challenging to pull off.

“The technology is there to do all kinds of things,” Hawkins said. “The question is almost always a matter of money, and anytime you bring technology into the equation, it brings in a number of issues. There’s not only the cost to install it, but also the cost to maintain it. It’s got to be monitored to make sure it functions in the intended manner. That requires personnel, or even more technology.

He went on, listing various stumbling blocks I hadn’t considered. If the lights failed to work — or got creamed by a snow plow — and an accident occurred, the community could be held liable. Federal guidelines allow only yellow crosswalk lights, not red ones. Local legislation would be required to allow cameras to record drivers and to fine those who don’t stop for pedestrians.

Hawkins left me with some hope, though, that technology might, in the near future, help resolve the crosswalk hazard.

“We’re approaching the cusp of new abilities that are related to what’s called vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications,” he said. “One vehicle may be slamming on its brakes and sending a signal to the two or three cars behind it that it’s doing so. With vehicle-to-infrastructure, the crosswalk is sending out a message to vehicles saying someone’s in the crosswalk.”

Under that scenario, your car would alert you to apply the brakes, or possibly brake by itself.

Look right

My second idea isn’t high-tech at all: It’s just an ad campaign.

As you’re well aware, bicycling is booming in Greater Boston, with more bike lanes, and more people in them, than ever. But that also means more conflicts between cyclists and drivers, particularly when drivers turn right and cut off cyclists pedaling alongside them in a marked bike lane or against the curb.

Whether cyclists should yield to turning cars, or whether turning cars should yield to cyclists pedaling to their right, is subject to debate, in part because state law is vague about who has the right of way when cyclists aren’t in imminent danger.

I don’t know how to resolve that one, but what could help — what could make our roads safer — is for drivers on local roads to train themselves to always look right well in advance of a right turn.

Should you spot a cyclist in your mirror, keep looking right, up to the moment you turn. “Look Right! Look Right! Look Right!” would be my imaginary ad’s tagline.

Here’s my logic. A bicyclist pedaling at 10 miles per hour will travel about 150 feet in 10 seconds — about the distance of seven standard car lengths. The bicyclist might be that far behind you the first time you spot her, but as you slow down to ready for your turn, the cyclist will probably gain ground. If you don’t keep looking right, you have no idea whether she’s still seven car lengths behind, or three car lengths behind, or whether she’s completely caught up to you. A faster biker will close the gap even quicker.

I floated my idea past several cycling advocates, who predictably agreed that more public awareness would be better. But Northeastern University professor Peter Furth, a specialist in urban transportation, offered another compelling suggestion.

When Furth lived in the Netherlands, he had to obtain a Dutch driver’s license. Driver training is far more extensive there, costing the average person $2,000 to $4,000, and even after such training, many applicants fail their exam, he said. One of the ways they fail, in fact, is by forgetting to look for bicyclists during their road test.

“Everyone is taught to look twice. First as you are approaching an intersection, glance to your right. Then at the last minute before you make your turn, take a second look,” he said.

“They also train you very strictly to always look for cyclists before you open your door. The test always ends when you pull into a parking spot and they say, ‘OK, you are done.’ If you don’t look behind you before you open the door, you fail the test.”

The road test Massachusetts drivers take doesn’t test applicants for bicycle awareness. Maybe it should.

Peter DeMarco can be reached at demarco@globe.com. His Facebook page is “Who Taught You to Drive?”and on Twitter @whotaughtU2driv.
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