Why green figure is playing mind tricks

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The new Barnes Dance crossings in inner-city Dunedin are causing some confusion but one academic thinks there is a simple solution.

Since March, the Dunedin City Council has been installing Barnes Dance crossings, which allow pedestrians to cross in any direction including diagonally.

Vehicles stopped at red lights have been regularly observed starting to move when the green figure, which signals to pedestrians they may cross, lights up.

Last week, in an hour The Star counted 10 drivers out of 102 vehicles stopped at a red light in the Octagon who appeared confused when the green pedestrian lantern came on.

University of Otago psychology lecturer Kristin Hillman said changing the crossing signal from green to white could prevent this from happening.

This would allow motorists to more easily distinguish between traffic lights and crossing lights, Dr Hillman said.

It was all about ingrained habits, and drivers naturally associated a green light with a situation in which they had the right to proceed.

The green colour of the pedestrian crossing signals, their large size, circular shape and location in the same line of sight as traffic lights all contributed to the confusion, Dr Hillman said.

Motorists were highly conditioned to think “green means go” and changing the pedestrian crossing signal’s colour to white would remove the confusion for motorists.

“Even with the best intentions to pay attention and adapt as motorists, it is cognitively difficult to override years of green-means-go behavioural conditioning.”

Council transport engineering and road safety team leader Hjarne Poulsen said the council had followed national guidelines, which legally required a green human figure be used, so it was unable to change the colour.

He said he thought motorists and pedestrians were “adapting well” but needed to pay more attention.

Dr Hillman agreed with the council that motorists needed to pay more attention.

She supported the move to Barnes Dances but thought a simple colour change could be a big help, she said.