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Could painting zigzag lines on the road make trail crossings safer?

Photo from WSDOT
Photo from WSDOT

The faster someone is driving, the less likely they are to stop for someone entering a crosswalk. That’s just a street design fact.

So how can the state improve safety for trails that cross highways, especially in rural areas where traffic on both the trail and highway is relatively sparse?

Well, their newest experiment is in place now north of Arlington where the Centennial Trail crosses SR 9. The crossing already has a blinking light that trail users can activate by pushing a button. But a recent study found that 18 percent of people driving did not stop or even slow down for people trying to cross, according to WSDOT.

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So WSDOT is testing the state’s first zigzag crosswalk warning. The zigs and zags get closer together as you approach the crosswalk, giving a very obvious warning that there is something coming up you need to pay attention to. Hopefully that plus the standard crosswalk markings plus the blinking lights will be enough to get people to stop.

They are also installing the zigzags on SR 20 in Concrete. If testing goes well, the state hopes to roll the cheap markings out at more locations.

Details from WSDOT:

The zigzag markings are a test – the first of their kind in Washington state – to see if they might help improve driver’s compliance with slowing down approaching a crosswalk. While we haven’t had any specific safety problems in these areas, this is a low-cost way for us to try something that we believe will increase the level of compliance at crosswalks.

A few states, including Virginia and Hawaii, have implemented similar pavement markings near crosswalks and have seen positive results. These markings are also used extensively in Europe – they are even at the iconic Abbey Road crossing in London.

When you get in some of these rural locations, drivers can start to tune out and all of a sudden you come upon these particular crossings. A recent study of the SR 9 crossing showed that 18 percent of vehicles did not slow down or stop for a pedestrian at the crosswalk, which currently also has a flashing beacon that can be activated by pedestrians and cyclists. The new zigzag crosswalks will help give a visual indication that you’re approaching a crosswalk and you should slow down and be aware.

The cost of installing the new pavement markings in the three locations is expected to be $5,000-$6,000. The paint is the same as is currently used in crosswalks and railroad crossings so vehicles – including motorcycles – should have no issues traveling over them. If the test program at these sites is successful, we may evaluate other areas that could benefit from the unique pavement markings as a low-cost alternative to electronic crosswalk indicators.

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21 responses to “Could painting zigzag lines on the road make trail crossings safer?”

  1. Law Abider

    I’d tend to believe that a large portion of those 18% don’t stop, not because they don’t see the flashing lights or pedestrians that are trying to cross, but rather because they don’t want to stop. Even here in the City, unless you are actively crossing in the crosswalk, there are quite a few people that will blow by and refuse to stop, when you clearly are trying to cross.

    While this is a small cost project, and even if it saves one life across the state, it is well worth the cost, the cities, counties and state need to really step up education, followed by enforcement, to really have an effect.

    1. Southeasterner

      Not sure I fully agree with your assumption that most people see people in the crosswalk (or about to cross) and don’t want to stop.

      The other Weekend I ate outside of Scooters in Ballard along 24th and I took an informal survey of drivers going through the beacon intersection at 24th and 58th. I observed a full 70% of the drivers who blew through the intersection when people were in the crosswalk (and there were a lot of instances) were looking down at a cell phone or other object. I was even prepared to call 911 when one teenage boy looked up just in time to slam on the breaks before plowing through a couple with a stroller. He was easily going 40 mph, well above the posted speed limit.

      The law that really need to be enforced desperately in the state of WA is distracted driving. It’s simply amazing how many people are no longer paying attention to the road.

      1. Josh

        I’m not sure distracted drivers will notice the zigzag lines, either.

        It seems to me that thicker transverse rumble stripes before the crosswalk might be more effective — thermoplastic stripes perpendicular to the lane, thick enough that they make noise inside the car, even if you’re looking at your phone, but low enough that they don’t interfere with riding a bike.

      2. sdv

        As someone who bikes/drives down 24th often, I will add my anecdotal evidence that most of the times that the lights are flashing at the crossing at 58th there is no one crossing or preparing to cross. I think many regulars on the street have come to ignore the lights because of too many false positives.

      3. Josh

        RRFB crossing lights stay on long enough to protect slow/elderly pedestrians. Bikes are often 1/4 mile away in that amount of time. But unless you upgrade to active detection of people still in the crossing, you have to time lights for slower, more vulnerable users.

  2. AW

    What would be more effective in getting drivers to stop is for tire shredders to pop up from the road when pedestrians enter the crosswalk. Buying a new set of tires will be a great reminder to not blow through a crosswalk.

    1. Peri Hartman

      That’s funny :)

    2. Skylar

      Other possibilities I can think of:

      1. Pyrotechnics exploding around the crosswalk
      2. Massive airbags launched from the road into cars
      3. Massive hooks deployed to rip the underbelly of cars apart
      4. Maybe, just maybe, we could have police enforcing the law?

  3. GlenBikes

    I agree with Law Abider. The reason so many people driving refuse to stop at crosswalks (flashing lights or not) is in large part due to the fact that they know they will never get a ticket for it. Cities around our region just don’t enforce this so it has effectively become “not a law” anymore.

    Putting a raised crosswalk (differing height based on the intended speed of the road) would work much better. People are going to slow down if it means avoiding potential damage to their car. And once their foot is on the brake I believe they are much more likely to stop for someone who is waiting to cross.

  4. ZeGerman

    Aren’t zig-zag lines used in London and other parts of the UK for this exact purpose? What do their traffic studies demonstrate?

  5. merlin

    After getting stranded (again) halfway across East Madison this afternoon, I have to agree with Glen. A person driving east on Madison stopped for me as I stood with my bike in the unmarked crosswalk. It would be rude to refuse to accept the kindness, and the two cars approaching in the other lane had plenty of time to stop for me. The person driving the first car looked right at me and drove by without slowing. Meanwhile the person who had stopped first to let me cross had continued on and cars were zipping by behind me so I was sandwiched between two lanes of moving traffic. The next westbound driver did stop so I made it home and am able to tell the tale.
    Some people are never going to stop unless they face tire shredders, exploding air bags, and hefty tickets.

  6. William Wilcock

    If such markings have yielded positive results in Virginia, Hawaii and Europe why on earth do they need to be tested again in Washington State before widespread implementation.

    1. Josh

      Markings and signs are supposed to be standardized nation-wide, so that a driver from Florida knows how to drive in Forks without unnecessary confusion over novel traffic controls.

      In order to make it into the approved national standards, any new traffic control has to be tested in multiple places to ensure it works and doesn’t have unintended impacts.

      1. William Wilcock

        May be that is why traffic safety in the US lags western Europe despite the advantage of roads that are generally wider and straighter.

      2. Peri Hartman

        You may have stepped on the clue. Our roads are straighter and wider, generally. That makes for easier driving and less attentiveness.

      3. GlenBikes

        Or the fact that wide roads encourage fast speeds which directly leads to increased collisions.

      4. Jeremy

        Wide road advantage? Nope, road diets make sprawly stroads more survivable.


        Bonus! There may be less tarmac to maintain, depending on the diet, thus reducing costs to taxpayers.

      5. Josh

        Wider, straighter roads are a long-term disadvantage.

        In the short term, widening or straightening any one road segment will reduce collisions on that segment. But the more segments you widen and straighten, the more people get used to driving fast and paying less attention when they hit conditions that actually require driving the car.

      6. Peri Hartman

        Yep. Wider, straighter roads mean faster travel. Just look at the new mercer street. It’s common, now, for people coming off the freeway to continue at 50-60 mph on mercer street. I’ve seen it a lot. Approaching the freeway, people start accelerating considerably while still on mercer – easily over 40mph.

      7. William Wilcock

        There is no need to blame wider and straighter roads for the higher accident rates on US roads. The standard of driving in the US is appalling compared with Europe and one only need compare the level of driving skill required to pass a driver’s test.

        Outside of cities, the statistics in both the US and Europe show that many of the most dangerous roads for cars and bikes are the narrow and windy main roads that are heavily trafficked with lots intersections and poor visibility. The fact that Europe has lower collision and death rates with a higher proportion such roads does not mean they are safer – it just means that Europe pays more attention to safety.

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