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Why don’t Danish drivers stop at pedestrian crossings?

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.

Why don't Danish drivers stop at pedestrian crossings?
Why don't Danish drivers stop at pedestrian crossings? Photo: Katie E / Pexels

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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Ten things for foreigners to know when learning to drive in Denmark

Foreign residents from outside the EU are sometimes required to learn and take a driving test in Denmark – even if they can already drive. We asked driving instructors and foreign drivers in Denmark for their best advice.

Ten things for foreigners to know when learning to drive in Denmark

Do a bit of homework

A bit of home study and focus on technical aspects – which may be different from other countries where you have driving experience – can set you on your way, according to both an instructor and a testee.

“Starting from attending the theory classes, a consistent focus on the technical instructions when you are driving with your instructor is extremely important”, Martin Kremmling, a driving instructor from Næstved, told The Local.

“I found the driving licence handbook very helpful, especially when I had to understand the uniquely Danish technical and theoretical aspects of driving,” Kiama Chola, a Kenyan expat who previously held an American driving licence, said.

Rosa Camero, a Mexican native who had driven for almost two decades prior to moving to Denmark, said it was like starting from scratch. “What helped me pass my theory test was taking online tests every single day,” she said.

Prepare yourself psychologically 

Getting started on your journey to getting a driving licence in Denmark requires preparing oneself psychologically.

“When you are behind the wheel of a car, your mental strength is what will help you in driving safely and efficiently,” says Kremmling.

Learn to drive from the passenger’s seat

Unlike in many other countries, Denmark does not allow a learner’s permit that allows students to continue practising their driving with a parent or someone with a valid driver’s licence. Therefore, many students have to pay to drive with their instructors

“Understandably, the process of getting a driver’s licence in Denmark is expensive. But, a student can learn by just being a passenger,” says Kremmling.

“If you can sit in the passenger’s seat and see how the driver prepares and manoeuvres, it will go a long way in helping when you are behind the steering wheel”.

Maya Pandya, an Indian native who moved to Denmark, agrees.

“It helped me to observe and learn while sitting next to my husband as he drove, especially changing speeds from the highways to city limits, and at the roundabouts,” she said.

Find the driving school and the language of instruction that is best for you

“I had to find the right school and instructor before investing my time and money in getting my driver’s licence,” Hina Akram, who moved from Pakistan to Copenhagen, told The Local.

Akram chose Urdu to be the language of instruction and tests. While this was helpful in overcoming the language barrier, she notes that some terms don’t have exact translations from Danish.

Some Danish schools offer driving instructions in various languages – this will often be stated on the school’s website, or you can call them to find out. When taking the practical test, if a foreign language is chosen, a translator will have to be hired at an extra fee of around 1,000 kroner.

READ ALSO: What to know about taking the Danish driving test as a foreigner

Communication is key

Open communication is key to success, according to some who learned to drive in Denmark after moving here.

“My first driving school and instructor were not a good fit for me, as I could not fully understand them. It changed when I changed my school and instructor, whom I could understand and ask any question, no matter how silly it may have sounded,” Chola says.

Driving instructor Deniz Cicek said he modifies his teaching based on his student’s level of manoeuvring.

“For some of my foreign students, I had to begin with teaching them to manoeuvre a shopping trolley before letting them sit behind the steering wheel”, says Cicek.

Civek said he uses videos on TikTok and YouTube to engage his students and for them to take note of driving safely while learning how to master the theory and road tests.

READ ALSO: How and when should I exchange my foreign driving licence for a Danish one?

Respect and acknowledge uniquely Danish road safety needs

“Despite being from the EU, driving in Denmark – especially in Copenhagen – is quite different,” said Kristel, an Estonian who moved from London. She had to be especially aware of the biking lanes and bikers in Denmark.

“I encourage my foreign students, especially those from outside of Europe, to understand key signs on the road, arrows and lanes that they may not be familiar with, before getting started,” Kremmling said, adding that he encourages his students to begin with cycling to understand traffic and develop better judgement around safe driving.

“I was learning new terms for the first time. For instance, ‘unconditional give way duty’. I worked with my instructor to really understand how it plays out while driving,” Pandya said.

Remember “mirror-mirror-shoulder”

Every instructor will tell their students this well before they turn the ignition.

“Checking your rear-view mirror, the side mirror, and looking over your shoulder should become natural for every driver,” says Kremmling.

This is echoed by Cicek. “The mirror-mirror-shoulder check is probably the most important thing in a practical exam. Every practical test examiner will be looking at you if you have checked your mirrors and looked over your shoulder”, he says.

“Road safety is taken seriously and being meticulous is the way to being a safe and successful driver in Denmark. Especially so in the city centres, where there are many cyclists on the side lanes – so one has to be extra vigilant,” Chola notes.

Try not to stress about the exam

“Most of my foreign students who fail their exams seem to be taken over by stress,” says Kremmling.

One way to avoid this is prioritisation, according to Camero.

“It can be overwhelming and stressful to remember everything at once. So, I prioritised based on what I saw on online tests and what my driving instructor said would be important. That helped a lot,” she said.

Another way is to imagine driving with your instructor.

“For your practical test, it can be nerve-wracking for foreign students to be driving with someone they are meeting for the first time. I always suggest that they imagine that they are driving with their driving instructor, with whom they have established a comfort level,” Cicek says.

Use online resources to prepare

Several sites offer practice theory tests. These include Teoriklar, Sikkertrafik and Bedrebilist.

“It is worth investing in as it helped me pass my theory after having been unsuccessful without these online tests two previous times,” says Pandya.

Know that the practical test evaluators are on your side

At the end of it all, both Kremmling and Cicek emphasise that students need not fear test evaluators but consider them as allies in their process.

“They are nice and there to help”, says Cicek.

Kremmling echoes the same sentiment: “the evaluators are experienced and understand how stressful this can be, particularly for a foreign student.”