What skills are needed to cross a road?

Science topics April 2015 Road safetyHuman behaviour

Marie-Axelle GRANIE, Senior researcher - TS2 Department, LMA Laboratory

Moving around on foot and crossing the road are much more complex than it seems at first sight. If we consider crossing a road as a problem-solving situation, a number of cognitive functions and capacities are required to perform the task safely.


What skills are needed to cross a road? - Ifsttar - Crossing a road ©Sophie Jeannin - Ifsttar

A visual search strategy

First, the pedestrian analyses the situation, observes the traffic and conducts a visual search. This requires some understanding of how the road space operates in order to know where to look so the visual search is informative and effective.
The strategy also involves attention, that is to say the ability to focus on important information, even if other, less important, information is more attractive. At the same time, it is necessary to detect crossing sites where there could be visibility difficulties.
This involves analysing the dangers posed by the topography of the road space. It is necessary to identify where visibility is masked by parking and the road scene must also be perceived from the spatial position of other road users.


What skills are needed to cross a road? - Ifsttar - Pedestrians encumbered by luggage (Photo credit IFSTTAR)

In an environment that moves

Pedestrians must obviously take into account the dynamic elements in the road environment, particularly vehicles which are moving or may potentially do so.
Deciding whether a vehicle is moving and determining its direction uses the ability to locate sounds and coordinate data provided by hearing and sight. If the vehicle is approaching, it is necessary to determine how much time is left before contact, i.e. how long it will take it to reach the point where the pedestrian will be at that time. This involves comparing the time that is available to cross the road with the time required to do it.
The second quantity depends on the width of the road which pedestrians estimate on the basis of visual information and their individual characteristics. They must have an accurate idea of their usual speed (which varies with age) and what can affect it (heavy and cumbersome parcels, pushchairs, small children, etc.).


Requiring complex and rapid decision-making

Pedestrians also need to predict what vehicles will do, i.e. anticipate driver’s behaviour (is the vehicle going to slow down, continue straight ahead or turn?). This involves taking account of all the factors that indicate or provide a way of understanding the intentions of other road users (indicators, position on the carriageway, road design, the state of traffic, normal driver behaviours, etc.). These factors inform pedestrians about how the situation will change in the future and enable them to decide on their behaviour.
Pedestrians usually have to cope with traffic coming from several directions − at least two. Information must be collected and judgements and/or predictions made based on it for each of these directions. This process requires the short-term memory and the ability to divide one’s attention. Next, the information must be rapidly coordinated, in real time, in order to react to the changing situation on the road.


Very importantly, all these skills vary according to the pedestrian’s age and experience. They are not all mobilised in the same way in all situations: crossing a road with a pedestrian traffic signal is less complex than crossing a road without one, except if the pedestrian decides not to wait for the green light. But that’s another story...



Find out more ...

  • Granié, M.-A. (2004). L'éducation routière chez l'enfant: évaluations d'actions éducatives. Apports de la recherche en psychologie du développement à la compréhension de l'enfant en sécurité routière. Rapport INRETS n°254. Arcueil: Les collections de l'INRETS. Download free of charge from the IFSTTAR bookshop
  • Granié, M.-A. (2010). Socialisation au risque et construction sociale des comportements de l’enfant piéton : éléments de réflexion pour l’éducation routière. Enfances, Familles, Générations, 12, 88-110. Available at érudit.org
  • Granié, M.-A., & Espiau, G. (2010). Etude qualitative du comportement piéton de collégiens par la méthode de l’autoconfrontation. Territoires en Mouvement. Revue de Géographie et d'Aménagement, 2008(1), 39-57. Available on Territoire en mouvement
  • Granié, M.-A., Pannetier, M., & Guého, L. (2013). Developing a self-reporting method to measure pedestrian behaviors at all ages. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 50, 830-839. Accessible through ScienceDirect