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FHWA Highway Safety Programs

Detailed Findings From Pedestrian Focus Groups

The findings reported here are from the four focus groups that focused on issues related to Hispanic pedestrian safety. The findings are topically organized. After each section, several quotes from group participants are included in italics. The quotes are associated with their respective cities (Washington, New York, Miami, and Los Angeles).

Where and how often Hispanic pedestrians walk

Participants reported a variety of walking behaviors. Several do not own a car, and thus rely heavily on walking to get them places. Others live within walking distance of places they visit regularly, such as church or the grocery store. Still others walk to public transportation stops or simply for pleasure or exercise. They reported walking anywhere from several minutes a day to several hours a day. Most walk during the daytime, but a few reported that they walk at night. There is some sense among these pedestrians, discussed later in this report, that Hispanic pedestrians may encounter particular hazards in the places they walk that other ethnic groups do not (e.g. in more dangerous areas). California pedestrians were asked whether they personally walked along railroad tracks, and all group members reported that they do not. They said that in the U.S., railways are better protected than in Hispanic countries, with fences and signs that prevent people from walking along the tracks.

"I go walking because I do not have a car. I go to the supermarket and I do everything walking."— New York pedestrian

"I walk two blocks to the bus stop, and twelve blocks to the supermarket." — Miami pedestrian

"I'm very interested in walking for health purposes."— New York pedestrian

"I walk in the mornings and afternoons."— Washington pedestrian

"I walk 8 blocks every day to take my children to school, and then walk back. I also walk to work." — Los Angeles pedestrian

General awareness of traffic signs and regulations

Focus group participants mentioned that they were familiar with several aspects of the U.S. traffic system, including various traffic signs, signals, and laws. However, their knowledge of these laws and systems was somewhat vague, and most participants could not describe in detail the safety systems concerning traffic in the U.S. For example, one group member described pedestrian walkways as "those white lines," while another indicated awareness of the crosswalk buttons, but skepticism regarding whether they really worked. Likewise, some pedestrians did not have specific ideas about what constitutes appropriate pedestrian behavior. For example, many signs are only in English, which creates confusion for new immigrants in particular. Additionally, in the U.S. system most signs are for drivers, so pedestrians report that they are not always sure what they are supposed to do (e.g. many participants reported initial confusion regarding what the blinking hand meant at a crosswalk).

"There are two lights, the one for the driver which is higher, and a light to the side with a hand that says stop which is in red (in that case the pedestrian cannot go); when it changes to the little man, then you can go." — Miami pedestrian

"There are those white lines."— Washington pedestrian

"There are also buttons that you can press on the stop lights to switch the light to red, but I don't know if they really work." — Washington pedestrian

"I like to take a route where I have a light to push, otherwise you have to wait forever ... and the cars don't let you go."— Los Angeles pedestrian

"You should always walk in the opposite way as the cars."— Miami pedestrian

"There are not many signs, or when people see them, they don't know them." — Miami pedestrian

"The traffic signs are in English."— Miami pedestrian

"If the signs are written, it's going to be a problem, because not all [Hispanics] know the English language ... the signs are universal, and the languages are not." — New York pedestrian

Sources of information about traffic signs and regulations

Participants in these focus groups reported that they have few formal sources of information available to them about changing traffic laws, and they reported that new immigrants have no consolidated source of general traffic information. For example, Miami participants said that they have no source of information when laws change, and Los Angeles participants said it would take a very prominent public education campaign to alert them to changes in laws. Hispanics' original knowledge about these laws was acquired mostly through day-to-day experience and an informal network of friends and family members, although a few reported some formal education (e.g. driver's education) regarding these issues, and still others said most of what they know they learned while taking the test to get a U.S. driver's license. Many participants spontaneously mentioned that for many Hispanics who are new to the U.S., traffic laws are likely to be confusing and unknown. Hispanics appear to self-identify as relatively uninformed about these laws, although several participants said Hispanics know no more or less about these laws than other ethnic groups.

"There is very little education for the pedestrian." — Miami pedestrian

"I don't know [the rules] word by word, but it is part of the education that I received in Miami. For example, that the pedestrians have the right of way ... you used to learn [these laws] in the school, at home, in the TV, but today these laws do not exist anymore." — Miami pedestrian

"I think Hispanics that come from a country where there are no traffic signs ... [or] have never seen a traffic signal or never seen a traffic light; they aren't very familiar when they come here." — Washington pedestrian

"For example, pedestrian crossing, a Hispanic would have no idea what that means ... I think the text that is written on the signs is a big problem." — Washington pedestrian

"I have heard from other people that you have to walk in between the lines [crosswalks], and, if an accident occurs outside the lines, it is the pedestrian's fault." — Los Angeles pedestrian

"We know less [about traffic laws]." — New York pedestrian

"[We understand the traffic laws] no more or less than the other immigrants." — New York pedestrian

"If you don't know the language, then by looking at the behavior of the people here, then you learn." — Los Angeles pedestrian

Pedestrians' perceptions of danger

These Hispanics spontaneously report that some of the places they walk are dangerous for pedestrians. For example, they mentioned intersections where cars never stop or where cars routinely stop in the middle of crosswalks, places where there are few traffic signals or where cars ignore signals, places where there are no sidewalks, and places where the time for pedestrians to cross the street is insufficient. Pedestrians also report a lack of respect in general from motorists, and cite bicyclists as a cause for concern. Many report having been in accidents with bicyclists. While they see walking as something of a hazard: "Unfortunately, there is no alternative."

"This city is not designed for you to walk." — Miami pedestrian

"I don't think there is safety anywhere anymore." — Los Angeles pedestrian

"I walk almost all the time and I've learned that you have to be very alert." — Washington pedestrian

"In an accident ... the pedestrian is always on the losing end." — Washington pedestrian

"The people who ride in cars, they do not respect you. Even if you have the right to go first." — Los Angeles pedestrian

"Unfortunately there are no sidewalks, so I walk in the street." — Miami pedestrian

"Here in Miami, there is no respect for the pedestrian." — Miami pedestrian

"There is a street where there is only 30 seconds to cross the street, and 30 seconds is nothing." — Washington pedestrian

"The signs change too fast, and do not give you enough time to cross the street." — Los Angeles pedestrian

"There are a lot of bicyclists so you have to be careful you don't get run over." — New York pedestrian

"Drivers don't turn on their lights and pedestrians don't see them." — Washington pedestrian

"Sometimes it's more dangerous to walk at night than during the day." — Washington pedestrian

Safety measures and safety precautions

These pedestrians reported a variety of precautions that they take to make themselves safer. Most reported that they do not wear fluorescent clothing or reflectors to make themselves more visible, although a few do use these devices or substitutes of their own devising. [An exception was in Los Angeles, where most group members said they do wear lighter colored clothing to make themselves more visible.] A few also said that they simply avoid walking at night, or in bad weather. Pedestrians who did not currently use reflective clothing are willing to consider this behavior. Other safety measures employed by pedestrians include making sure there is an appropriate distance between themselves and cars before crossing the street, being aware of weather and general driving conditions, or trying to make visual contact with drivers to ensure drivers were aware of their presence.

"The bicyclists use them [fluorescent clothes], but not us." — New York pedestrian

"I use reflectors and I also walk on the opposite side of the street to see the cars coming, because there are parts where I walk where there isn't a sidewalk." — Washington pedestrian

"I don't own a safety vest, but I always try to take a sheet or a bright umbrella." — Washington pedestrian

"I wear light clothes so that the drivers can see me." — Los Angeles pedestrian

"[I might be willing to wear] a reflector that you can out around your arm, or a reflective strap that you can put around your wrist." — Washington pedestrian

"The precaution that I take is that the car has to be far [away] for me to cross." — New York pedestrian

"If I have to cross the street, I go to the light, because near to where I live ... a person was killed by a car, and therefore I am afraid."— Los Angeles pedestrian

"In the winter, when it snows or when it's slippery, I don't run to cross the street. I'm more careful." — Washington pedestrian

"I try to walk fast across the intersections." — Washington pedestrian

"The pedestrian must have a certain knowledge about city behavior. For example, they must know that at 9 a.m. everybody is going to work and therefore the people in the cars are going to have less patience with the pedestrians than if it was 3 p.m. on a Saturday or Sunday." — New York pedestrian

"I look at the driver; I try to make visual contact with the driver." — Washington pedestrian

"I try to make eye contact with the drivers to tell them that I am ready to cross." — Los Angeles pedestrian

Risk-seeking behaviors among pedestrians

These participants were most comfortable discussing behaviors that they see other pedestrians engaged in that might be unsafe, as opposed to providing specific examples of what they do which is risky. There is a general awareness that pedestrians can cause accidents doing things such as crossing in the middle of a street, or not waiting for the appropriate time to cross. Participants did not think that Hispanics were more likely to do these things than other ethnic groups. In terms of personal risky behaviors, many pedestrians report that they have jaywalked. While they know this is dangerous, they do this because they are in a hurry. Finally, some pedestrians said that they have seen other people walk after drinking. New York participants said this was common, and at least one person admitted having done this. In Miami, participants said they had only heard of such behavior and never engaged in it themselves. In Los Angeles, one person said he used to do this, but no longer does, and another reported that a man in his building does this all the time.

"A pedestrian needs to be very responsible ... us pedestrians can make accidents happen." — Washington pedestrian

"Many people cross where they are not supposed to cross." — Washington pedestrian

"I used to [jaywalk], but then I got a ticket." — Los Angeles pedestrian

"I sometimes [jaywalk], but first I look." — Los Angeles pedestrian

"Sometimes the walking signal says don't cross and people still cross." — Washington pedestrian

"People don't care about the color of the light, they walk at all times." — New York pedestrian

"Like I did tonight to get here, cross in the middle of the street, that's called jaywalking." — Washington pedestrian

"In general, I don't have the patience to wait for the light to change, so I'll just jaywalk." — Washington pedestrian

"I cross in the middle of the street, if there is no car, I cross." — Miami pedestrian

"I have also done it [cross in the middle] to save time." — Miami pedestrian

"Generally, one goes into a bar and goes out [by] walking ... [after a few drinks] I feel a little slow and feel like I do not have all my senses and when you are like that you are not careful anymore." — New York pedestrian

Personal knowledge of accidents

About a third of these participants had knowledge of someone who had been involved in an accident while a pedestrian. These included personal incidents, incidents involving friends and family members, and incidents they had observed. Some of the accidents were serious (one participant knew of someone who had been killed and another where a man's leg was broken), but they also reported minor incidents. The crashes involved pedestrians and cars and pedestrians and bicycles. Some of these accidents were reported to the police, while others were not. There is some reluctance to report such accidents because of fears of the police and concerns about immigration status. The causes of these accidents include parents not monitoring their children's behaviors and drivers failing to follow traffic laws. Additionally, one participant reported almost getting in an accident because he was distracted and thinking about other things.

"Well, I have had many incidents here in Manhattan with the delivery boys, because they did not see me ... [also,] in Manhattan, there are many senior citizens who have been hit by bicycles." — New York pedestrian

"When I went to California, I saw some kids that their parents weren't paying attention to, and the little girl tried to cross the street and a car hit the little girl, and the people didn't speak English." — Washington pedestrian

"I have a cousin who was hit by a taxi in Manhattan. The accident was reported and he had a fractured leg."— New York pedestrian

"A lady that lives by my house ... got hit by a pickup truck and damaged her knee; now she cannot walk." — Miami pedestrian

"The mother of a Colombian friend was killed by a car which did not stop at a yield sign while crossing a street in front of her house." — Miami pedestrian

"My grandchild, 4 years ago, in a very quiet residential street ... [he tried to] cross the road while his father wasn't looking and got hit by a van." — Los Angeles pedestrian

"I got hit by a bicyclist — I was crossing and he was turning the corner and it seems that he saw me and screamed at me ... he hit my shoulder and he ended up hitting a car." — New York pedestrian

"A work mate was hit by a bicyclist." — New York pedestrian

"I had a friend [who was in an accident]." — Washington pedestrian

"When I was almost in an accident, I was thinking of something else and I wasn't looking at the light." — Washington pedestrian

"One time at my bus stop, I got off the bus and the light was green for me to cross, so I started to cross but another bus went right in front of me and almost ran me over." — Los Angeles pedestrian

Groups seen as most likely to be in an accident

Focus group participants mentioned three main groups of people likely to be involved in accidents: young children, because they do what they want and tend not to pay attention; older people, because they move slower; and, recent immigrants, because they don't know U.S. traffic rules as well and tend to work in more dangerous areas. While there is a great deal of agreement that children and seniors are more at risk, participants were more divided as to whether recent immigrants really are at increased risk. Some participants argued that recent immigrants are very alert because they are in an unfamiliar situation, while others said these immigrants simply cannot compensate for the fact that they do not know U.S. laws as well as native-born Americans or people who have been in the U.S. longer.

"The younger kids ... the younger generation basically does whatever they want." — Washington pedestrian

"The children, because they do not know about the danger, they chase after a ball." — Miami pedestrian

"The children do not wait for the lights, they just walk, and the seniors walk slowly." — Los Angeles pedestrian

"I believe that the senior citizens [are more likely to get in an accident], because they do not have the same speed as a young person to cross the road quickly." — New York pedestrian

"I think that people who have difficulty walking fast will be more likely to get into an accident." — Washington pedestrian

"I think it's the elderly."vWashington pedestrian

"And the new immigrants ... near the factories [where immigrants work] there are no signals ... for the workers to get there, they have to go around or take short cuts through the highway and those shortcuts generally never have signals to cross." — New York pedestrian

"The Hispanic immigrants ... the type of work that he can do puts him more on the street and therefore puts him at higher risk." — New York pedestrian

"[Immigrants are more at risk] if they do not know the laws, and laws are not in Spanish." — Los Angeles pedestrian

General Hispanic cultural differences

Focus group participants reported several general cultural differences that pertain to Hispanic pedestrian safety. They say that many Hispanics come from rural areas, and that adapting to city life in the U.S. takes time. Likewise, many Hispanics who come to this country do not know English well, or do not understand U.S. traffic patterns (see next section for more information on this topic). Hispanics also feel they are more likely to walk because they are poorer. Additionally, they report that many Hispanics may be afraid to report accidents to the police, because they do not know English or the U.S. traffic system well, and because some immigrants are in this country illegally. There is also a general sense that Hispanics may take more risks than other ethnic groups, due in part to an attitude of fatalism (i.e. "if it's meant to happen, it will happen"), which may mean that this population engages in more risk-seeking behaviors. One participant also said that Hispanic culture makes Latinos more likely to be rowdy while drinking alcohol, which could lead to more accidents. At the same time, some participants said that Hispanics are more alert here than in their own countries, because they are more aware of these issues.

"A majority of Hispanics that get here from the country, it takes them a long time to adapt to living in the city." — Washington pedestrian

"People aren't used to the culture here. Sometimes people ... are afraid to participate in the system." — Washington pedestrian

"Hispanics come here with less money ... they have to walk, and since they have to walk, there is more chance of getting in an accident." — Los Angeles pedestrian

"I think we are more likely to be in an accident because we have more people walking on the streets, we have more kids on the roads, and the rest of the people are in cars." — Los Angeles pedestrian

"He [Hispanic pedestrian in an accident] is afraid of the police, the language is another, not knowing the laws. [Also,] many people believe immigration is going to be involved in all cases." — New York pedestrian

"I have a friend who did not report an accident because he does not have a driver's license." — Los Angeles pedestrian

"[Hispanics are more likely to take risks,] they are more irresponsible." — Miami pedestrian

"As Latinos, we try to take shortcuts and skip over things, and that's a reality." — Washington pedestrian

"I always have the luck and the blessing that whoever is in the road will give me the right of way." — Miami pedestrian

"Americans are more careful when they are drunk. They are not as loud and crazy in the street, because that is more of our culture when we drink." — Washington pedestrian

"I think we educate ourselves more here than in our countries, as pedestrians. In our countries, we cross the roads even if the cars are coming, because there are no signs." — Los Angeles pedestrian

Differences in traffic between Latino countries and the U.S.

These pedestrians had very energetic discussions about the differences between traffic patterns and traffic signs in the United States vs. in Hispanic countries. A primary difference is that there is more traffic in general in the United States. In addition, one of the most consistently reported differences is that traffic rules are enforced much more stringently in the United States, and, in general, traffic is more regulated in this country. Several participants also mentioned that the U.S. system is less corrupt. For the most part, traffic signs are the same in Latino countries as in the U.S. However, participants said that there are more traffic signs in the U.S., and that sometimes these signs are located in different places than they are in their home countries, or have text written in English that they do not understand. Participants specifically mentioned problems with knowing what to do at a crosswalk, with the yield sign, and with pedestrian crossings marked "walk" or "don't walk" (as opposed to using symbols). Finally, some participants said that Hispanics are worse drivers than other Americans, and that, subsequently, Hispanic neighborhoods are more dangerous places to be a pedestrian. Hispanic neighborhoods are also said to be more crowded, with more kids in the streets, and "less respect" for traffic laws than in non-Hispanic neighborhoods.

"[Many Hispanics] come from places where there is no traffic, or from the fields." — New York pedestrian

"Over there, the driver always has the right of way, but the pedestrians also do what they want. There, laws don't really count." — Washington pedestrian

"In our countries, we do not obey the law." — Miami pedestrian

"We are used to crossing in the middle of the road." — Miami pedestrian

"In our countries, if the police stop you, you give them money and that's it." — Miami pedestrian

"I believe there is a cultural aspect initially. For example, I have known people that had transit problems and pulled out their wallets to give money to the police. In our country, that is common ... here, you cannot do it." — New York pedestrian

"[Traffic signs and signals] are the same [as in native countries], but, if there is no car, people will cross the road."— New York pedestrian

"In Guatemala ... there are not many lights ... for pedestrians there are no lights, you have to look for the car traffic lights." — New York pedestrian

"Here there are signs everywhere." — Washington pedestrian

"The position of the lights that are up in the air, because, in my country, they are on the corner ... the stop light is not where I am looking."— Washington pedestrian

"When I first got to the U.S. I didn't really understand the signs, so I would walk over the white line ... I think it would be a good idea to have a picture of a pedestrian between the lines so people know where to walk." — Washington pedestrian

"I did not know that the laws here were respected and that I had to push a button in order to cross the street ... it was hard, and I kept forgetting." — Los Angeles pedestrian

"When I first got here about 20 years ago they were still using 'walk' and 'don't walk' and I remember that my father was confused by that because he didn't know what 'walk' and 'don't walk' meant." — New York pedestrian

"There is a sign [for drivers] ... that says Yield and I didn't know what that meant until later." — New York pedestrian

"In the beginning I used to read one thing on the sign, but the meaning was different, and slowly you learn." — Los Angeles pedestrian

"I had problems because when the green light was giving me the right to walk with a little white man, then a little hand will come out and you cannot walk, but I would not understand ... because it was in English, and then someone told me that the little hand means you cannot walk." — Los Angeles pedestrian

"[Hispanic] drivers have less discipline. For example, in the Dominican neighborhoods here, you have to be very careful because the driver will go on the yellow, on the red, any color, they do not respect [the signals]. So, you are taking a higher risk where there are Hispanics than in other places." — New York pedestrian

"I do walk by [neighborhood], which is ... a zone of high Hispanic traffic which I would say is very disorganized." — New York pedestrian

"[Hispanic neighborhoods have] more cars, more people walking, and it seems there is less respect." — Los Angeles pedestrian

Country of origin differences

Participants agreed that country of origin might also matter, although they found it difficult to come up with specific examples of differences. Essentially, they reported that each Hispanic culture is unique, and, because of this, different Hispanics bring varying expectations to being a pedestrian in the United States. Additionally, each person has a different background and education, and these factors are also related to knowledge and behaviors. However, we found in the groups a great deal of consistency in the answers people provided, indicating that country of origin differences are likely not very significant contributors to this issue, and are likely overshadowed by general cultural and language differences between Hispanics and non-Hispanics.

"If we come from Argentina it's very different than if we just came from Mexico." — New York pedestrian

"I don't believe that it is a question of nationality, but it is a matter of individuality, because everybody has to adjust to the place you are living." — New York pedestrian

Safety solutions: Fines and tickets

In thinking about the problem of Hispanic pedestrian safety, one immediate solution offered by group members was that traffic laws needed to be more strictly enforced. Participants were not clear as to whether it was drivers, pedestrians, or both who needed to be subject to more stringent fines. The general sense was that even though the U.S. was more regulated in this regard than Latino countries, laws are still relatively lax regarding enforcement. They believe that issuing tickets with associated fines would improve the behaviors of drivers and pedestrians. Fines should be at least $40 for infractions such as jaywalking, and many people in the groups supported even higher fines.

"We should make violators of the law have tickets of a higher value." — New York pedestrian

"They won't take it seriously unless there is a fine or something that will cost them and make them take the laws on pedestrian safety seriously." — Washington pedestrian

"Once they get a couple of tickets, they are going to learn." — Los Angeles pedestrian

"I think the problem lies in not being strong enough in applying the law in order for the Hispanics to learn the law." — Miami pedestrian

"I believe that the laws should be enforced." — New York pedestrian

"I think a fine will do it." "At least $40." — Los Angeles pedestrians, in conversation

Safety solutions: Respect and education

Another common solution offered to this problem was the need for more general respect and education among pedestrians and drivers. Partly, this is tied to a need to recognize that certain behaviors and practices are dangerous. However, pedestrians, and recent immigrants in particular, need more traffic safety education. For example, this education could explain what crosswalks are, and what the crosswalk symbols mean. Pedestrians also thought that it was important for drivers to respect pedestrians, including yielding to pedestrians and being alert for pedestrians.

"The first thing that the pedestrian should do is to respect himself and to respect the norms; you cannot be crossing the big avenues in any place you want, it is very dangerous. Also, the drivers must respect the norms as well." — New York pedestrian

"[Pedestrians need to] have more respect for the drivers." — Los Angeles pedestrian

"There is not enough time to educate them about driving [when they come to this country]." — Washington pedestrian

"[Pedestrians need to] be more careful, even if you have the right to go, because the light is not respected." — Los Angeles pedestrian

"I think if they [Hispanics] had education, there would be less accidents." — Washington pedestrian

"I think there should be education first and then enforce the laws." — New York pedestrian

"In Miami, the problem is that the people do not respect the laws, [and] the police do not do anything." — Miami pedestrian

"The city or the state can make a good investment in pedestrian education, especially for the immigrants." — New York pedestrian

Overall interest

Participants said that they were personally interested in this topic, and that the Hispanic community in general would also be interested in this issue. However, this issue was not seen as more pressing than other social concerns (e.g. crime or education). The most compelling statistic seems to be that Hispanics are significantly overrepresented, by a factor of two, in such crashes. This statistic makes people interested in this topic.

"This is a problem for all of us." — New York pedestrian

"All of us can put in a little and help." — Los Angeles pedestrian

"What surprises me is the second one, that we have double the probability to be in an accident." — New York pedestrian

"It seems to me that the problems of drugs and education are more important than the pedestrian." — New York pedestrian

"It seems to me that at the local level, at the community level, there is interest, but not at a higher level." — New York pedestrian

Hispanics' suggestions for public outreach on this topic

Participants mentioned several places they would like to see more information on this issue distributed. These places include television (e.g. Univision), radio, public transit stations, commercials, soap operas, soccer games, PSAs, churches, schools, and supermarkets. All such materials should be bilingual. Participants are not interested in receiving information via the Internet. Materials also should include graphics and other visuals, and not rely too heavily on text. Participants also had some ideas for the content of such a campaign. These include stopping at every light, looking both ways before crossing the street, obeying the laws, respecting the lights, crossing only in pedestrian walkways, and education about what to do at yellow lights and about how cars can slide in snow and bad weather.

"Anywhere there is a concentration of Hispanics, [there] should be more written information." — New York pedestrian

"It could be in a graphic way, because there are people who don't like to read." — New York pedestrian

"Stop at every light. Look both ways before you cross." — Washington pedestrian

"I always tell my kids that they not only need to walk forward, but they need to look every way." — Los Angeles pedestrian

"Always cross by the pedestrian zones." — Miami pedestrian

"On the light poles, put signs with indications to wait for the light to change, to go to the intersection in order to cross." — Miami pedestrian

"[The message could be,] 'Hey Juan, here [in the U.S.] you have to obey the laws.'" — Washington pedestrian

"Respect the pedestrians." — Los Angeles pedestrian

"Respect the signs." — Los Angeles pedestrian

"I think pedestrians should know how climate affects cars; if it snows, it slides. I think pedestrians should be educated on what the weather can do to a car." — Washington pedestrian