The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences lost a great deal of respect when it published a study claiming female hurricane names were taken less seriously by the public. A new paper on racism in crosswalks won't add more credibility to the humanities and the social sciences about what is really happening in the world outside a p=.05 value. Luckily, PNAS did not publish this one, Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behavior did.

The authors claim that a driver choosing to stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk has to do with the pedestrian's race - yes, skin color makes you more likely to be okay with murder. Look for that to be worked into the Implicit Association Test some time soon.

The scholars found that African-Americans experienced a wait time about 32 percent longer than for whites before drivers chose to yield. The team also found that African-Americans were twice as likely as white pedestrians to be passed by multiple vehicles. The team controlled for age, clothing and other socioeconomic factors of the pedestrians.

"It was not a very large study, so we weren't sure the amount of data collected would be enough to reach statistical significance, so we were surprised to see how quickly the significance showed up," said Arlie Adkins, an assistant professor in the University of Arizona School of Landscape Architecture and Planning, apparently misunderstanding that a small study is exactly how significance shows up quickly. "Drivers were clearly displaying behaviors consistent with implicit racial bias."

Findings from the study -- involving 88 pedestrian trials and 173 driver-subjects was in "Racial Bias in Driver Yielding Behavior at Crosswalks." Adkins co-authored the article with Portland State University researchers Kimberly Kahn, an assistant professor of social psychology and principal investigator on both NITC grants, and Tara Goddard, a doctoral candidate in urban studies at Portland State. The trio began working together while Adkins completed his doctorate at Portland State.

Studying Implicit Bias

Combining urban transportation with social psychology made it easy to find discrimination and the possibility of implicit bias, which references the various unconscious stereotypes and beliefs people hold that shape how they think and act.

"We are not saying drivers are overtly racist," Kahn said, emphasizing that the study results are consistent with implicit biases that individuals may hold beneath their awareness against certain groups of people.

"Improving the pedestrian experience is not just going to be an engineering problem," she said. "You have to bring in psychology to get a deeper understanding of the issues we are trying to solve."

Disparity Indicated by Data

Motivating the team's research is nationwide data indicating a disparity in pedestrian injuries and fatalities.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this year reported that 4,735 pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes in 2013, representing 14 percent of all traffic-related fatalities. The agency estimated that 66,000 pedestrians were injured that same year. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reported that during a period that spanned 2000 to 2012, African-American and Hispanic male pedestrians were more than twice as likely then white men to die in traffic crashes.

"While implicit bias does not explain the disparity in safety outcomes, it may be a contributor," Adkins said. "These microaggressions in different contexts add up to become a very negative situation for some people. It is a problem if people feel threatened, or if they are treated unequally." 

Microaggressions, implicit bias and racist crosswalks. The quest to make social psychology legitimate will be solved another day.