How to Drive More Safely around Pedestrians

In the last few years, you may have heard that more pedestrians are getting seriously injured or killed by drivers. More than 270,00 pedestrians are killed annually worldwide, but the problem is especially dire in the United States, where it’s the most dangerous time to be a pedestrian in 40 years.

There are multiple reasons for these alarming numbers. Road infrastructure often prioritizes vehicles, while impaired and distracted driving is up and adequate traffic law enforcement is down. In the US, the enormous popularity of larger, taller vehicles like SUVs and pickup trucks is proving deadly; their front-end designs are up to 45 percent more lethal to pedestrians than cars. Drivers are also speeding more, and increases of just 10 mph can double pedestrian mortality.

Pedestrians are often unfairly blamed in these crashes (accused of jaywalking or being distracted by smartphones), but up to two-thirds of these incidents are caused by drivers speeding or failing to yield to pedestrians who have the right of way. 

As drivers, we can do so much more to keep pedestrians safe, but it means retraining ourselves to see them better, driving more carefully, and consistently practising these new safety habits.

We Literally Can’t See

To be safer drivers, we first need to understand how our eyes and brains work (or don’t). My Brightmile article, “Why We Can’t See What’s Right in Front of Us,” covers this in more detail, but here are some basics:

  • Ever heard of saccades? When we scan a scene quickly, our eyes move in jerky jumps that result in visual gaps called saccades. We actually can’t see anything unless we keep our eyes still, and that’s why we easily miss the narrow profiles of pedestrians, bicycles, and motorcycles when we glance from side to side. To overcome saccades, we need to physically move our heads to bring things into the centre of our vision and look methodically at multiple fixed points, even if it’s just for a split second.

  • It’s hard to see near edges. In a visual phenomenon called windscreen zoning, we tend to overlook the edges of a windshield. That means the areas near our door pillars, mirrors, and dashboards cause even bigger saccades, making us more likely to miss seeing people (and their legs and feet).

  • Our vehicles have many more blind spots than you think! Our driving instructor may have taught us that our vehicle has only a few blind spots, but the true number is closer to a dozen, once you count all your vehicle’s headrests, door pillars, mirrors, and external corners. Plus, the designs of many modern vehicles (especially SUVs and trucks) make seeing out of them even more difficult or almost impossible.

  • Our peripheral vision is limited. We’re good at registering movement out of the corner of our eyes, but not so great at discerning detail and where it’s coming from. To do that, we must physically turn our heads and look for its source.

  • We suffer from inattentional blindness and distraction. Another reason we miss seeing pedestrians is that we get visually and cognitively distracted by something else at the wrong moment. For instance, we might not spot a person stepping off a curb because we’re looking at our GPS trying to find the next street to take.

  • We see what we expect. One of the worst things about driving is that we’re often not aware that our brains tend to fill in gaps with whatever they assume will be there. If we make a turn and don’t expect a pedestrian to be crossing the street, we may not actually see that person until we’re nearly upon them. That’s especially true in familiar or routine routes, where habit and history often lull us into complacency.

Paying Attention to Where Pedestrians Might Be

Now that you’re aware of the vision problems listed above, you can start changing how you literally see the road. But first, it’s worth thinking about when and where pedestrians might be. Of course, people can be anywhere at any time, but here are some predictable times and places:

  • Where?

    • At the corners and curbs of any major (and minor!) intersections and junctions

    • Stores, malls, restaurants, farmers’ markets, hospitals, gas stations, rest stops, office buildings, community centres, hotels, stadiums, theatres, clubs, and other attractions

    • Schools and nearby neighbourhoods

    • Airports, train stations, and bus stops. Don’t forget along bus routes, too!

    • In driveways and by mailboxes

    • By garbage cans, dumpsters, and skips on pickup days

    • Back entrances and alleys

    • Parking lots

    • Parks, playgrounds, pools, beaches, walking and running trails, and bike paths

    • By delivery trucks, taxicabs, and rideshare vehicles

  • When?

    • During morning and evening work commuting hours

    • The two hours prior to school beginning and ending

    • On holidays and festivals. Don’t forget Halloween!

    • During evening dining and entertainment hours and late nights when bars and clubs close

Retraining Yourself to Look, See, and Drive Better

Here are some steps to immediately help you start driving more safely around pedestrians (and others!):

  • Slow down—way down. The best way to prevent hitting someone is to slow down—and far more than you think you need to, even in quiet residential neighbourhoods where the unexpected can happen very quickly. Slowing down gives you more time to observe your surroundings, process what you’re seeing, and respond with time to spare. (Research has shown that it takes drivers three-quarters to two seconds to detect a hazard and react to it—and that’s if they’re paying attention in the first place.) It also gives others more time to see you and respond. As I mentioned before, even small increases in vehicle speed are far more likely to kill pedestrians.

  • Mindfully observe. All the looking you do won’t help you truly see unless your mind is focused, without distraction. As you drive, keep your eyes up and continuously search for hazards, alternating between looking far ahead and moving backwards to where you are. Make a game of actively scanning side to side for pedestrians everywhere possible—on sidewalks, near curbs and light poles, by parked vehicles—and I bet you’ll start seeing more of them immediately. If you’re stopped in traffic or waiting at a light, take that opportunity to turn your head, look around, and note who’s where and what’s happening.

  • Seek crosswalks. One excellent way to train yourself to see pedestrians is to actively look for painted crosswalks and zebra markings in the road and any associated signage. Once you begin spotting them, it becomes easier to remember to check for pedestrians. And don’t forget unmarked crosswalks too!

  • Look for signs of people in and around parked vehicles. This includes open doors, trunks, and hoods; interior lights on; any movement inside a vehicle; and signs of smoke wafting from exhaust pipes. Watch for little feet around and underneath vehicles!

  • Peep, creep, and make no sudden moves. In busy areas where you’ll be stopping and turning frequently in the path of pedestrians, follow these steps:

  • Make sure you always stop before the crosswalk, sidewalk, or stop sign. Don’t be that person who goes too fast and doesn’t look ahead far enough, only to brake hard and carelessly stop in the middle of someone’s path.

  • Before turning, first take a deep breath and exhale; this will calm you and give you a little oxygen boost. Then, mentally assume that someone will be walking across your path; that makes us more likely to see when someone actually is.

  • Now, carefully look to make sure no peds will be crossing your path from any direction. Move your head and look over your shoulder and around obstacles if necessary; shorter folks and people in wheelchairs can be hidden behind your door pillars and rearview and side mirrors.

  • Stay a respectful distance from pedestrians, and never try to hurry anyone by getting too close or creeping forward. The stress and risk for you and them just aren’t worth it.

  • When it’s safe to proceed, “creep and peep.” You can never be too careful. If someone behind you is impatient and honking, don’t let them bully you—your priorities are far more important, and they often can’t see what you’re seeing.

  • Beware of what we can’t see! Stay especially vigilant around stopped vehicles that you can’t see around, especially delivery vans, buses, and semi-trailer trucks; people can step out from around them at any time and surprise you.

  • Position yourself for safety. Positioning your vehicle away from where pedestrians may emerge or converge gives you bigger margins of safety for the unexpected. This may mean driving toward the center of the road further away from parked cars or delivery vans, or avoiding an especially congested parking lot.

  • Look before you back up. Ever notice how often people jump into their cars, start reversing, and then they look? Don’t be one of those drivers! Carefully look all around you before you move and use your vehicle’s back-up camera if you have one. Then proceed very slowly, in case you’ve missed someone—it also gives people time to see you and get out of your way.

  • Just pay attention. Watching for pedestrians and everything else on the road requires your full visual and cognitive attention at every moment. Be committed to staying focused and paying attention with no electronic distractions. In crucial moments, resist the urge to think about that work meeting or talking to passengers.

  • Watch for pedestrians in dark clothing. Unfortunately, many people wear black or dark-coloured clothing, which makes it even harder to see them, especially if they are standing still by a curb, and especially at night, on dark winter days, and during stormy weather. This is even more reason to be going slower and actively scanning all sides.

  • Expect the unexpected at any time. One interesting fact is that pedestrians are far less likely to be hit at intersections than we might think. It’s the person impulsively dashing across lanes in the middle of a block, a homeless person leaving a tent encampment, a family crossing a busy road with no crosswalk or traffic lights, or a person walking to school or work along a road with no proper sidewalks that we might hit. This is even more true at night and in dimly lit, poorer neighbourhoods with minority populations. So, stay alert, watching, and ready.

  • Practice, practice, practice. Training yourself to see pedestrians and drive more safely often means deprogramming years of bad habits. It’ll take time, but the good news is that you have plenty of opportunities to improve and build better ones.

  • And reflect! If you have a close call, take a minute to debrief—why did you miss seeing that person? What was the situation? Were you distracted? How can you change what you were doing so it doesn’t happen again? Mistakes make wonderful learning opportunities as long as you’re open to honest change. It could save lives.

You may be interested in these…

Let's make your drivers safer, together! Get a free demo

"The Brightmile app is the perfect mix of Safety, Fleet, Sustainability and HR tools to manage the fleet and engage drivers"

Global HSE Manager, SGS

Request a Demo