One of the great small achievements of British civilisation is the zebra crossing, marked by the orange globed lights called Belisha beacons, giving the right of way to pedestrians to cross roads.

The beacons are named after the visionary transport minister who introduced them in the 1930s, Leslie Hore-Belisha. He was also responsible for the 30mph speed limit in built-up areas and the compulsory driving test. (Belisha beacons predate the zebra markings on the road, which were brought in during the early 1950s.)

The truly important thing is the enshrining of the pedestrian’s right of way over that of the car, at the pedestrian’s convenience.

The zebra crossing idea has been imperfectly imitated in other countries (none of which, as far as I know, use Belisha beacons) where black and white stripes are marked on roads but where pedestrians (as many a young British visitor to the continent has discovered) do not have automatic right of way. In France, in particular, the attitude of many drivers approaching a pedestrian on a striped crossing resembles that of a lioness spotting a vulnerable wildebeest (or, perhaps I should say, a zebra).

The rights of pedestrians to use zebra crossings are enshrined in law but this system is also a kind of social compact between different classes of road user, which requires a certain mutual respect. Recently in the UK there has been a slight increase in the number of pedestrians killed and injured at zebra crossings by cars, buses and lorries (recently I witnessed a bus failing to slow down at a zebra crossing, a first in my experience).

At the same time, zebra crossings are being phased out in many areas. Slow Lane’s sympathies are, of course, overwhelmingly with pedestrians but fair-mindedness requires a look at both sides of the equation.

The behaviour of drivers who fail to stop if a pedestrian is crossing or about to cross a zebra crossing, as drivers are required by law to do, is more than reprehensible; it could be called quasi-murderous.

But the behaviour of pedestrians as they approach crossings needs to be looked at also. I say this, in part, because from my regular perch at my local café I have a perfect view of a zebra crossing about a cricket pitch’s length away, set on a busy road close to a turning where cars and, especially, lorries cut the corner to the exasperation of other road users. The use of horns and rude gestures – things not usually associated with my country – is all too common.

One morning, I notice a young woman approaching the zebra crossing looking preoccupied, with a white mobile phone clamped to her ear. She is focused on her phone conversation, and not really looking where she is going and she steps on to the crossing without making any kind of eye contact with the driver of the car that she assumes will stop for her. She is technically in the right but I have some sympathy for the driver who screeches to a halt with a show of irritation.

What we are talking about here could be summed up as increasing distraction. Interesting work has been done on this in the US. The number of pedestrians killed in traffic accidents in America is rising – more than 4,400 lost their lives in 2011. In August 2013, Anthony Foxx, the US secretary of transportation, attributed a significant part of this to “distracted walking” – people walking while texting or listening to music.

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission claimed that 1,152 pedestrians were treated in accident and emergency rooms in 2011 for injuries while phoning, texting or listening to music, compared with less than 600 in 2004. Around two-thirds of those injured were under 25.

At an academic level, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte conducted a survey with the catchy title, the “Effect of Road User Distractions on Pedestrian Safety at Mid-Block Crosswalks on a College Campus”.

The study examines the role of distraction both among drivers and pedestrians approaching crossings. The results point to increased risk when both motorists and pedestrians lose their focus.

Distracted pedestrians are a problem but distracted drivers are a more serious, even deadly, nuisance. Possibly because they feel unsafe at crossings, I am beginning to notice pedestrians in London displaying the opposite behaviour to that of the phone-distracted walker: they linger too long before making the decision to cross, then give a quite unnecessary show of gratitude to the driver.

This is almost as bad as distracted lack of engagement. Drivers, pedestrians should remember, are not doing them any kind of favour when they slow down and stop at zebra crossings; they are merely obeying the law of the land. But laws are not merely mechanical instruments. We all need to do our bit, by paying due attention and respect to others, in order to keep Belisha’s beacons burning.


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Letters in response to this column:

Delighted to catch habit of acknowledging courtesy / From Mr John Neill

A painful consequence of traffic lawlessness / From Ms Alice Bray

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