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Why don’t Danish drivers stop at pedestrian crossings?

Why don't Danish drivers stop at pedestrian crossings?
Why don't Danish drivers stop at pedestrian crossings? Photo: Katie E / Pexels
Danes adhere to pedestrian traffic lights, but it's a different matter at some pedestrian crossings. Sarah Redohl explores why many Danish drivers don't put the brakes on when approaching a crossing, but also why it's not motorists who pose the biggest danger to pedestrians.

Crossing Amager Strandvej in Copenhagen on my daily jog is always an exercise in tenacity.

As I come up to the pedestrian crossing at Italiensvej, I steel myself to stick one foot onto the crosswalk and hope the passing drivers come to a complete stop.

Standing at the crosswalk waiting for drivers to stop of their own volition very rarely works out. Lock eyes with passing motorists? They just zip right by.

After hundreds of identical incidents, I’ve discovered that unless your foot is in the crosswalk, Danes are unlikely to stop at pedestrian crosswalks. 

When I brought this up to a foreigner who’s lived in Denmark for more than a decade, he shrugged it off. “Yeah,” he said, “Danes don’t stop for pedestrians at crosswalks.”

Why don’t Danes stop for pedestrians?

I found this strange for a number of reasons. 

Not only do Danes have an almost humorous adherence to pedestrian traffic laws (even when there isn’t a single car in sight), but they also tend to follow the rule of law in general. 

“If there is a law, the majority of Danes usually follow it,” said Anne Brix Christiansen, chairman of the Danish Pedestrian Society (Dansk Fodgænger Forbund – DFF)

“If there’s a yield sign at the crosswalk, people tend to adhere to them, but there are a lot of crosswalks that don’t have yield signs,” Christiansen said. This leaves some ambiguity for law-abiding Danes.

Although there are clear-cut right-of-way rules when it comes to bicyclists that most motorists seem to know and follow to the letter, that doesn’t seem to be the case for pedestrians. 

“This country is full of cyclists,” Christiansen said, adding that most Danes are taught the rules of cycling safely when they are quite young. That’s not necessarily true for pedestrians. “I think cycling safety gets more attention than pedestrian safety here because it’s so visible.”

Back in 2015, the DFF wanted pedestrians to use the same hand signals cyclists use. Perhaps that would extend to pedestrians the same clarity drivers have for cyclists.

For better or worse, that request never caught on (at least in Copenhagen). My crosswalk confusion remained. 

Copenhagen is home to one of Europe’s longest pedestrian-only streets. Strøget is a 1.1 km pedestrian, car free shopping street. Photo: Philip Davali/Ritzau Scanpix

Who has the right of way?

According to the Danish police, students at Danish driving schools are taught to yield to pedestrians when they are close to the crosswalk. Those who don’t will fail their driver’s test.

However, outside of driving school, fines are only levied against drivers who don’t stop for pedestrians if part of the pedestrian’s body is in the crosswalk. If a pedestrian stops alongside the crosswalk and waits, cars can pass them by all day long. 

“If your foot is not in the crossing zone, they don’t have to stop,” I was told via the Danish police’s service line. “The second your foot is in that area, the cars have to wait until you cross.”

The Danish Pedestrian Society’s Christiansen said much the same: “It’s very visible in driver’s education here that you have to stop for pedestrians about to enter the crosswalk.” But, that isn’t always the case in the real world, she added. 

“Drivers should stop when they see someone near the crosswalk,” she said, “that’s what they’re taught. But I know there are a lot of drivers who don’t do that.”

Doesn’t that seem dangerous?

In my native United States, pedestrian crossings are clearly marked with yield signs and many, with orange flashing lights to remind drivers that pedestrians have the right of way. And yet, pedestrian fatalities in the U.S. are more than five times more common than they are in Denmark (even when you factor in population differences). 

In 2020, 23 pedestrians were killed in road accidents in Denmark, and 372 were injured, according to Danmarks Statistik. That’s down from 44 pedestrian fatalities in Denmark a decade ago.

For Christiansen, it’s actually cyclists who pose a greater threat to pedestrian safety in Denmark – and those numbers often go uncounted. 

“Pedestrians involved in accidents with cars are almost always counted in the statistics,” Christiansen said. “But when it comes to pedestrians and bikes, we don’t often know because many of those go unreported.”

These “dark numbers” are the focus of DFF’s July 5th meeting, its first since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020. She said it’s also an issue Denmark’s Ministry of Transportation is aiming to resolve.

Proceed with caution

When asked what people can do to improve pedestrian safety, Christiansen’s answer was clear: “Adhere to the rules” – whether you’re a pedestrian, a bicycle or a car. 

If you walk up next to a crosswalk and the cars still don’t stop, despite what they learned in driver’s education? Carefully stick your foot out into the crosswalk.

“If you look like you’re going to cross, especially if you put your foot out, they will stop,” Christiansen said.


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