Adults are better than children at detecting the speed of a car that’s traveling faster than 20 miles per hour and are more likely to avoid crossing, thus not getting hit. 

Director of New York City-based Transportation Alternatives Paul Steely-White asked on Twitter for a plain English translation of this three-year old journal article about vehicle speeds and something called “looming”.

The article is called “Reduced Sensitivity to Visual Looming Inflates the Risk Posed by Speeding Vehicles When Children Try to Cross the Road”.

Skip to the end if you want the plain English translation, but I’ve posted the abstract below followed by excerpts from Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic.

ABSTRACT: Almost all locomotor animals respond to visual looming or to discrete changes in optical size. The need to detect and process looming remains critically important for humans in everyday life. Road traffic statistics confirm that children up to 15 years old are overrepresented in pedestrian casualties. We demonstrate that, for a given pedestrian crossing time, vehicles traveling faster loom less than slower vehicles, which creates a dangerous illusion in which faster vehicles may be perceived as not approaching. Our results from perceptual tests of looming thresholds show strong developmental trends in sensitivity, such that children may not be able to detect vehicles approaching at speeds in excess of 20 mph. This creates a risk of injudicious road crossing in urban settings when traffic speeds are higher than 20 mph. The risk is exacerbated because vehicles moving faster than this speed are more likely to result in pedestrian fatalities.

The full text is free to download, but I think Steely-White needs to learn more now, so I pulled out my favorite book about driving, Tom Vanderbilt’s “Traffic”.

Page 95-97:

For humans, however, distance, like speed, is something we often judge rather imperfectly. Unfortunately for us, driving is really all about distance and speed. Consider a common and hazards maneuver in driving: overtaking a car on a two-lane road another approaches in the oncoming lane. When objects like cars are within twenty or thirty feet, we’re good at estimating how far away they are, thanks to our binocular vision (and the brain’s ability to construct a single 3D image from the differing 2D views each eye provides). Beyond that distance, both eyes are seeing the same view in parallel, and so things get a bit hazy. The farther out we go, the worse it gets: For a car that is twenty feet away, we might be accurate to within a few feet, but when it is three hundred yards away [900 feet], we might be off by a hundred yards [300 feet]. Considering that it takes about 279 feet for a car traveling at 55 miles per hour to stop (assuming an ideal average reaction time of 1.5 seconds), you can appreciate the problem of overestimating how far away an approaching car is – especially when they’re approaching you at 55 miles per hour.

[Here comes the keyword used in the journal article, “looming”]

Since we cannot tell exactly how far away the approaching car might be we guess using spatial cues, like its position relative to a roadside building or the car in front of us. We can also use the size of the oncoming car itself as a guide. We know it is approaching because its size is expanding or looming on our retina.

But there are problems with this. The first is that viewing objects straight on, as with the approaching car, does not provide us with a lot of information.


If all this is not enough to worry about there’s also the problem of the oncoming cars speed. A car in the distance approaching 20 miles per hour makes passing easy, but what if it is doing 80 miles per hour? The problem is this: We cannot really tell the difference. Until, that is, the car gets much closer — by which time it might be too late to act on the information.

[the topic continues]

Plain English translation

However, nothing I found in Traffic relates children and “looming”. The bottom line is that children are worse than adults at detecting the speed of a car coming in the cross direction and thus decide wrongly on when to cross the street.

Update: Based on Vanderbilt’s writing, it seems that humans cannot really be taught how to compensate for looming, to build a better perceptual model in the brain to detect the difference between cars traveling 20 and 80 MPH. If this is true, and I’d like to see research of pedestrian marketing and education programs designed for children, it may be that we should stop trying this approach.