New Research About Drivers and Blind and Visually Impaired Pedestrians

The cover of a recent Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness (JVIB)

The Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (JVIB) is the premier international, interdisciplinary journal of record on blindness and visual impairment. JVIB publishes scholarship and information and serves as a forum for exchanging ideas, airing controversies, and discussing critical professional issues.

(Note: As a long-time JVIB subscriber, my personal library contains almost every print issue dating from 1981. That’s 30 years of superb reference material! And yes, I am a research geek – and you should be, too. But more about that later …)

Drivers and Blind Pedestrians: Do Drivers Yield?

I was particularly interested in a research article in the December 2011 issue, entitled Conditions that Influence Drivers’ Yielding Behavior for Uncontrolled Crossings.

The article examines the influences of several interventions, including a visually impaired pedestrian’s use of a mobility cane, on the behavior of drivers when they were expected to yield to the pedestrian at a street crossing without traffic signals and signage.

The study was designed to recreate a real-life experience in which drivers were led to believe that they might hit a pedestrian if they did not stop.

The authors are Eugene Bourquin, DHA, the Helen Keller National Center; Robert Wall Emerson, Ph.D., Western Michigan University, Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies; and Dona Sauerburger, COMS, in private orientation and mobility practice, Gambrills, MD. Dona is also the author of Indoor & Outdoor Travel Skills for Adults with Vision Loss on the website.

About the Study

Lead author Dr. Bourquin and colleagues sought to determine whether using a white cane, wearing an orange vest, or waving a red flag increased the likelihood of drivers’ yielding for visually impaired pedestrians.

The Study Sites

The data for the study were collected at four sites: two in Kalamazoo, Michigan and two in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. Each traffic/study site included the following setting: the intersection of a two-lane minor residential street with a stop sign control and a two- or three-lane major street with no traffic control.

The Pedestrian

The [sighted] male pedestrian subject used throughout the study was 6 feet, 1 inch tall, wore medium-dark clothing, and wore wraparound amber tinted eyeglasses.

The Study Conditions

The pedestrian crossed the street in one of the six following conditions:

  1. Control: no identifier or signal associated with the pedestrian
  2. Flag: held a bright red flag (16 inches × 15 inches) head-high, angled forward, and moved it from side to side
  3. Vest: wore an orange vest with reflective strips over his clothing
  4. Cane: held a [white mobility] cane in his right hand, centered in front of his body, and moved it along the ground tapping from side to side in an arc about two feet wide
  5. Cane waving: used a cane as in Condition 4, but, before starting to cross, moved the tip of the cane over his head and then down to the ground twice
  6. Cane waving-vest: wore an orange vest while doing the same as in Condition 5.

Conditions 2-5 were selected because they had been suggested by mobility specialists and travel instructors as methods to keep travelers safer.

The Study Results

The study results included the following:

  • The presence of a white cane reliably predicted significantly greater yielding (an increase of approximately 250%) by drivers.
  • The authors hypothesized that the white cane is readily identified as a cue for dependence, causing drivers to respond more often within the norms of social responsibility.
  • Conversely, an orange vest or waving flag did not signal dependence and thus elicited fewer instances of driver yielding.
  • Persons who encourage their students or family members to wear an orange vest or wave a flag to increase safety should be aware that it may have little or no effect during the day, other than perhaps raising false expectations of safety.
  • Before starting to cross, pedestrians with visual impairments can display their canes prominently for drivers to see and should be aware that at crossings with faster traffic, they may experience less yielding.


As some readers may know, in addition to my work at the VisionAware blog, I am also an associate JVIB editor. As such, I am acutely aware of the importance of mobility and safety research, both for the field and for individuals who are blind or visually impaired.

I applaud the authors and urge you to read their insightful and important research article in its entirety.