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Contrary to intentions, crosswalks may actually put pedestrians in harm's way instead of ensuring their safe passage across the street.

According to new research, seniors are nearly four times as likely to be struck and killed at a crosswalk than they are when crossing at an intersection that features a stop sign or a light.

It is even safer to cross the street willy-nilly than to do so at a marked crosswalk.

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Thomas Koepsell, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington and the principal author of the study, said crosswalks create a false sense of security for pedestrians: They assume it is safe to cross, but the reality is that many motorists fail to respect the right-of-way.

"A lot of things can go wrong when a pedestrian tries to cross the street where there is no signal or stop sign," he said.

And while younger pedestrians can act defensively if a car speeds through a crosswalk, older people are far more vulnerable to being struck and killed, Dr. Koepsell said.

He said all crosswalks should either be dramatically upgraded to include flashing lights or eliminated altogether because the common practice of using just road markings in some locations is ineffective and often hazardous.

The study, published in today's edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that 4,739 pedestrians were killed by motor vehicles in the United States in 2000. About one in four were over the age of 65.

In Canada, there were 368 pedestrian deaths in 2000, according to Transport Canada, although it does not provide a breakdown of the number of people who died at crosswalks.

Raynald Marchand, manager of the traffic-safety and training section at the Canadian Safety Council, said he was not surprised by the new findings.

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"If people think a marked crosswalk is going to stop traffic, they're quite mistaken," he said.

"It's much safer to cross at the lights because few cars will run a red, but many drivers don't pay much attention at all to crosswalks."

One survey in Montreal found that only 5 per cent of drivers respected pedestrians' right-of-way at crosswalks.

Mr. Marchand said the new research may be misleading because crosswalks tend to be installed where there is a lot of pedestrian traffic but few intersections nearby with lights or stop signs.

"Fatalities are a volume issue," he said. "You have lots of cars, lots of pedestrians, and few crossing opportunities, so you're going to have more pedestrian-motor vehicle collisions."

In a commentary also published in today's edition of JAMA, Jeffrey Runge, administrator of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said three strategies are needed to make crossing the street safer for pedestrians:

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Improve signals by installing pedestrian-activated lights or replacing dangerous crosswalks with traffic signals;

Enforce existing traffic safety laws so drivers actually respect crosswalks;

Educate drivers and pedestrians on how to use crosswalks safely. In particular, he said, as they lose their vision and reflexes, seniors may have to relearn how to judge traffic.

Dr. Runge said traffic engineers also have to learn to respect clearly established guidelines on where it is appropriate to install crosswalks -- namely only where there is low-speed traffic, good visibility and excellent illumination. And they should adapt their crosswalks to local circumstances, such as by providing extra time in areas where there are a lot of slow-moving seniors.

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