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Left Turns Cause A Quarter Of All Pedestrian Crashes In U.S.


One of the most challenging maneuvers for a driver to make is a left turn. Nationwide, left turns trigger a quarter of all pedestrian crashes. The highest number of such pedestrian fatalities is in New York State. From member station WNYC, Kate Hinds reports.

KATE HINDS, BYLINE: On the evening before Thanksgiving last year, Brooklyn resident Emily Miller was doing some last-minute shopping near her home. First, she went to a Whole Foods. Her next stop was a kitchen supply store, so she walked to Fourth Avenue, a six-lane road with a lot of fast traffic.

EMILY MILLER: It's pretty intense.

HINDS: She needed to cross a side street, so she waited for the walk light.

MILLER: As soon as it turned green I stepped into the street, and honestly, the next thing I knew was that I was hit.

HINDS: The car, which had been traveling on Fourth Avenue, struck Emily in the crosswalk after making a left turn onto the side street. Emily didn't see it coming.

MILLER: Then the next thing I remember was being on my back and pretty quickly being surrounded by a good number of people.

HINDS: Miller was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital. She had a broken leg, a banged up arm, a concussion and a punctured lung. According to the police report, the driver said she didn't see anyone in the crosswalk. And...

MILLER: All traffic devices were obeyed.

HINDS: And that is one of the biggest problems with left turns. The turning driver has a green light right when pedestrians have the walk light, but it's not the only issue. To get the driver's perspective on left turns, I got into a car with Anne McCartt.

ANNE MCCARTT: So you want to go to Glebe first, the one right near us.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, let's do that.

HINDS: She's in charge of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Along with a couple of her colleagues, we drove around the streets near her office in Arlington, Va. At one intersection, she tried to make a left, but there was too much oncoming traffic.

MCCARTT: I think I'm going to have to sit here. Would that be our vote here that I would sit and wait for the light to turn?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Now it's red, so...


HINDS: McCartt says left turns are tricky because drivers have to make a complex series of judgments in a short period of time. Experts call that the driver workload.

MCCARTT: You have to try to gauge the speed and the distance of oncoming vehicles.

HINDS: And another factor comes into play. Matthew Reed is a professor with the University of Michigan.

MATTHEW REED: When a driver looks forward, there's a pillar just to the left of the windshield.

HINDS: That structure is called the A-pillar, and over the years as crash standards have evolved, it's gotten bigger. The pillars have gotten thicker to withstand rollover, and they often house airbags, but there's a downside to those safety benefits.

REED: When we compare the data we find that drivers could see more outside of their vehicles in the '80s than they can now.

HINDS: European countries have regulated drivers' forward field of vision since 1977. The U.S. does not.

REED: And our hypothesis is that drivers can't see as well out of the vehicles that have wider pillars, and that puts pedestrians at risk.

HINDS: Nationally, about 180 pedestrians die each year after being struck by a vehicle making a left turn. In New York City alone, the maneuver killed 17 pedestrians and two cyclists last year. The city's Department of Transportation has been redesigning dozens of intersections to make left turns safer. But at a hearing in March, Commissioner Polly Trottenberg told city council members there are limits to what can be done.


POLLY TROTTENBERG: We won't be able to do it everywhere in the city. You can't create a special turning lane and a special signal in every intersection for left turns.

HINDS: And those things aren't panaceas anyway because road design is just one piece of the equation. Drivers need to be conscious of vehicle blind spots. And pedestrians need to know that sometimes a walk light is no guarantee of a car-free crossing. For NPR News, I'm Kate Hinds in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kate Hinds