I don’t know why, but I seem to be drawn to this topic. It’s no longer a question of what side of the road a pedestrian should walk on. We know the answer to that. No, I’m more interested in what causes some people to choose the wrong side. It’s been 14 years since I last broached the subject in the form of a letter to the editor of the News-Press in Fort Myers, Florida so I thought I’d indulge myself and look at the issue again but from a slightly different perspective.
To be fair, I know that few if any people will read this posting and it’s even less likely to influence anyone’s behavior. Over the years, I’ve learned that people tend to largely ignore logic and facts when making decisions and make most choices in life based on emotions. It’s the old motivated reasoning hypothesis or as many people call it – “going with your gut.” Is that what’s happening for people who choose to walk on a road with their back to traffic? Later in this post, I’ll speculate on what could be driving the decision for those people who to elect to walk with their back to oncoming traffic.
Left is right.
First, let me clearly establish that there is no controversy, no ambiguity, and no reasonable doubt that it’s safer for pedestrians to walk on the left side of the road facing oncoming traffic. State statutes , safety councils , and an abundance of published research all unanimously agree that walking facing traffic is much safer than walking on the right side of the road with traffic approaching from behind. How much safer? One study calculated that there would be a 77% decrease in fatal and in non-fatal injury if all pedestrians simply walked on the left side of the road facing traffic. 
For me, one of the most authoritative sources to inculcate in me that walking facing traffic was the only safe choice was Mrs. Rose, my first-grade teacher. “Come on children – think about it. It’s common sense that you’re safer if you can see what’s coming toward you.” You didn’t mess with Mrs. Rose, so my confidence level is high that, to this day, none of her students have ever walked on the right side of the road.
Even dogs do it.
There’s such a clear difference in safety between walking on the left side of the road versus the right that Guide Dogs are trained to always walk on the left: “The dogs are trained to follow along the left side of the road facing on-coming traffic. This enhances their comfort and ability to react if there is a problem…”  and “dogs learn to walk along the left side of the road in areas where there are no sidewalks.” 
So, there it is – walking on the right side of the road is simply wrong.
If it’s so clearly wrong, then why do people do it?
What has me curious is if there is such a clear and broad consensus that walking facing traffic is safer, then why do so many pedestrians ignore safety and choose to walk on the right side of the road. At least it seemed that when I was walking in the neighborhood, I encountered a number of people walking with the traffic. A quick tally of pedestrians walking on the street in front of my house one Saturday morning confirmed what I suspected. The majority of them (77%) were walking on the right side of the road with their backs to oncoming traffic. The pedestrians walking with their backs to traffic included adults by themselves, adults with adults, adults with children, adults pushing strollers, adults with dogs, children, and children with children.
I was perplexed by this observation. It couldn’t be random – if a person flipped a coin to decide which side of the street they would walk, I’d expect something closer to a 50-50 split. Why did only 23% of the people make the right choice when they embarked on their walk. Puzzling, puzzling indeed.
After thinking about it, I decided to make a list of possible reasons someone would intentionally walk on the wrong side of the street.
Answers to the question “Why don’t you walk facing traffic?”
- There’s very little traffic in our neighborhood so I’m safe walking on either side of the road.
- I have complete and absolute trust in the driving ability of drivers coming up behind me.
- Distracted driving is a myth. Every driver is always 100% alert and 100% focused on driving.
- I drive on the right, why not walk on the right?
- I’m from the UK and forgot Americans drive on the right side of the road.
- My gut tells me that it’s safer to walk with my back to traffic.
- I don’t really think about it.
- My dog likes to walk on my right side, so I walk on the right side of the street so he has easy access to my neighbors’ lawns.
- I’m trying to help my spouse pay bills by letting her collecting on the double indemnity clause in my life insurance policy.
- I like riding in ambulances
- Hospital emergency rooms are exciting.
- Cars never have mechanical failures that result in loss of control.
- I don’t like taking responsibility for my own safety.
- I see many others doing it and I don’t want to be different.
- I see many others doing it so it must be right.
- People almost never get hit by a car, so the risk is low.
- I’m tired of setting good examples for my children.
- The stroller rolls better with the traffic coming from behind.
- I disagree with the research, the NHTSA, and state legislatures that says it’s safer to walk facing traffic. What do they know?
- Only 16 pedestrians are killed by cars every day, so if I’m hit, I’ll probably be mangled but not necessarily killed. That sounds like a hefty insurance settlement to me.
- To me, it just feels like it’s safer to walk on the right side of the road.
- I prefer not to see the car that runs me over.
- It’s my right as an Amurican to walk anywhere I want on any road I want.
- It’s too hard to remember cars on the right, pedestrians on the left, so I just always stay on the right side of the road.
- I don’t like the pressure of being responsible for my own safety.
- I hate thinking about such things, so I flip a coin before each walk – Heads=face traffic; tails = back to traffic.
- Cars? What cars?
- I only walk facing traffic when I know there’s a distracted driver in an oncoming car.
- What? Drive on the right side of the road, but walk on the left? That takes way too much effort to keep that straight. Why does it have to be so complicated?
- I’m fascinated with taillights on cars and the only way I can see them is to walk on the right side of the road with my back toward oncoming cars.
- I walked facing traffic once and it was downright scary.
- I get an adrenaline rush from taking the risk of being blindsided by a 3,000-pound chunk of metal and glass moving at 30 miles per hour.
- Like my mother, I have eyes in the back of my head.
- I have exceptional hearing and can hear when a car is hugging the edge of the road and on a path to wipe me out.
- I have no idea why I choose to walk on the right side of the road.
- Life’s an adventure – being safe is boring, so I walk on the right side.
- Noting risked, nothing gained, although I’m really not what I gain by walking on the right.
- I hate walking facing oncoming traffic and making eye contact with the drivers of oncoming vehicles. It’s an invasion of my privacy.
- When I walk with my back to oncoming traffic it seems more like I’m in my own little world.
- I love surprises and there’s nothing more surprising than being whacked in the back by the side-view mirror on a car.
- I’m a staunch conservative and do nothing related to the left.
- I don’t wear makeup when I’m walking so I don’t want drivers of oncoming cars to see my face.
Walking facing traffic is anything but a new concept
Is there really a consensus that walking facing traffic is the right thing to do? Yes, and it’s been the case for many decades. Following are a few examples from our past that seem to have gone unheeded by many pedestrians as well as a short list of educational images.
Photograph taken for International Harvester’s Agricultural Extension Department. Creation Date: May 26 1926 Source: https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Image/IM81977
1938, Source: https://www.amazon.com/Historic-Images-Vintage-highway-pedestrians/dp/B07RT26M9T
1943 Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. Bureau of Special Services. (03/09/1943 – 09/15/1945)
Sources: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%22WALK_FACING_TRAFFIC,_WHERE_THERE_ARE_NO_SIDEWALKS%22_-_NARA_-_516012.jpg and https://catalog.archives.gov/id/516012
1959 Public Safety Poster, “Walk on Left”, Illustrated by Elin Waite. Via Etsy.
Disney Poster – WALK FACING TRAFFIC – Disney Study Print Poster – Circa 1967
Iowa Adult Crossing Guard Training Module 2, Law
Sign on a military base in Virginia. Anyone care to tell the Marines they’re wrong?
MARINE CORPS ORDER 5100.19F:  “Pedestrians are responsible to ensure that they always face traffic and maintain a minimum of three (3) feet of clearance from the traveled portion of roadways, streets, and parking lots…”
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) lesson plan for second and third grade 
One thought on “Exploring the minds of pedestrians and the choices they make”
I have been maddened by this my entire adult life, especially as a runner. I just wish you had done some questioning to find out what these idiots actually would indeed say to explain it.