Vehicle/pedestrian safety: Observational study design and persuasion practice

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The New York Times has noted new data showing a rise in pedestrian deaths (Leonhardt, 2023). The article offers several possibilities for this increase. One reason may be that drivers are paying more attention to their phones than to the road and what’s going on around them. I’ll add built-in car displays in that category. With a physical knob or dial, adjusting music/audiobook volume or in-cabin temperature could easily be done by touch. With screens, drivers have to look away from the road to make these adjustments. The article also suggests that the greater availability of marijuana and opioids has more people driving under the influence of something. Additionally, more people are living in areas where sidewalks and crosswalks are less common. When people walk on the road, it stands to reason that their chances of being hit by a driver increase. Lastly, the article notes that with more people living on the streets, there are more opportunities for people and cars to collide. I’d add one more possibility. It seems like cars are quieter than they used to be—electric vehicles certainly are. If pedestrians rely on sight and sound to help with vehicle awareness, quiet cars reduce those sensory modalities by half.

The New York Times article makes excellent points. What is missing from this discussion, however, is pedestrian behavior. In my informal observations of pedestrians—both as a driver and as a fellow pedestrian, some pedestrians seem pretty cavalier about occupying the same space as cars. Here are a few examples I’ve experienced in the last two weeks.

There is a fairly busy rural road near my home that has a few rolling hills. There is no sidewalk. It’s possible to walk on the side of the road, but with the rocks, it looks like it would be tough trekking. I’ve seen one person on two different occasions walking on the road, walking with traffic, and wearing over-the-ear headphones. It’s not difficult for me to imagine a car cresting one of those hills and not seeing this person in time to avoid them—especially if there is oncoming traffic. The person would have no chance since they can neither see nor hear oncoming traffic.

Just yesterday I was leaving our local post office when a person crossed the street in front of me. They did not look either direction before crossing. They were wearing a big hood that functioned just like blinders. If I had been any closer, they would have walked into the side of my car.

Actually, a couple weeks ago, I was the passenger in a car when a person who had not looked for oncoming cars, stepped off the curb and came very close to walking into the side of our car. The car was a red Camaro. It was not easy to miss.

Not paying attention to surroundings is as much of a problem for pedestrians as it is for drivers. While a pedestrian who steps into a crosswalk when the lighted guy turns green is in the right and the inattentive driver who hits them is in the wrong, being right does not make the pedestrian any less dead.

Have pedestrians become less attentive? I don’t know. If we are, I can imagine several reasons why. Just like drivers, phones have pedestrians’ attention. I also wonder if today’s pedestrians have less experience being pedestrians than pedestrians of the past. For example, stranger danger pushed kids indoors, giving them less experience on streets. Furthermore, more of my students today do not know how to drive as compared to my students in the past. Does less experience behind the wheel make it harder for pedestrians to see the world through a driver’s eyes?

This could be the basis of an interesting observational study for your students. Can your students devise measurements that would quantify pedestrian or driver attentiveness? For example, does a randomly selected pedestrian look both ways before stepping into the street? Or does a randomly selected driver stopped in an intersection, look both directions before proceeding into the crosswalk? How would your students select the intersections to conduct their observations? Does your city have data on the busiest intersections? Does your local police department have data on where the car/pedestrian crashes occur? What days or times of day would your students choose?

As a way to expand student engagement with psychology or as alternative activity, consider asking students to use the persuasive strategies they learned about in their Intro Psych social chapter to design a public ad campaign

While the primary goal of the observational study activity is to give students practice designing and conducting an observational study and the primary goal of the public ad campaign is to give students practice putting their knowledge of social psychology to work, the secondary goal for both activities is to increase student traffic safety awareness—both as drivers and as pedestrians.



Leonhardt, D. (2023, December 11). The rise in U.S. traffic deaths. The New York Times.


About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.