/ Travel & Leisure

Can we save the zebra crossing from extinction?

The Beatles Abbey Road album cover walking across zebra crossing

They’ve been a staple on our roads for 60 years and they became a style icon in the late ’60s, thanks to The Beatles. But does a fall in numbers and a rise in accidents mean that the humble zebra crossing’s had its day?

Do you step out confidently on to a zebra crossing, or wait tentatively until drivers have showed signs of slowing down? I’m definitely in the second camp – and my nervousness is getting worse.

I’ve noticed – and mentally clocked – the number of times cars have sped straight through the black and white lines, despite seeing me waiting patiently.

There’s one crossing near my house that is particularly bad for this. It’s on a two-lane one-way system at a point where drivers have just picked up speed and are reluctant to slow back down again. But rules are rules – and they state that pedestrians should have the right of way when on a zebra crossing.

Much as I’ve muttered many a swear word under my breath at such drivers, I’ve never thought much more about the subject until earlier this week. Britain’s zebra crossings celebrated their 60th birthday on Monday – but there wasn’t a great deal to celebrate.

The cost of saving lives

Since 2007, the number of deaths on crossings has doubled – with five people dying last year and a further 144 seriously hurt. The crossings themselves have also been declining in numbers. Over 1,000 have been removed over the past five years, and you’ve probably noticed many others being replaced with alternatives that have lights and flashing signs.

But this level of sophistication comes at quite a cost. Pelican and puffin crossings – which are part-operated by pedestrians – cost £35,000, making the humble zebra look positively cheap at £10,000. This is an issue that our Senior Cars Researcher, Dave Evans, raised when I asked his opinion of the declining trend:

‘Zebra crossings are a great, low cost method of allowing pedestrians to cross busy roads, and they usually don’t unduly interrupt traffic flow. But they do rely on motorists to obey the simple guidelines – giving way to those on foot, no overtaking of waiting traffic, and no stopping within the zigzag zone (unless allowing someone to cross).

‘Driver education is what is needed and not the complex and expensive alternatives like pelicans, puffins and tigers. I say long live the zebra!’

Can we save the zebra?

I have to say I agree with Dave – but obviously they need to work harder to survive. So what’s the answer? One suggested reason for drivers failing to stop is that the fines for doing so are lower in the UK than elsewhere in Europe. Fail to stop here and you’ll face a £60 fine – do the same in Belgium and it could cost you up to £2,000.

Much as I’d like to see these crossings enjoy a revival, I can’t help but think there’s a better way. Stephen Glaister of the RAC Foundation raises a good point that ‘the important thing is to put in the right crossing at the right place,’ he says, which is definitely part of the problem with that hellish crossing near me.

Better driver education, higher fines and more appropriately placed crossings – could this be the magic combination to help zebras back into the limelight? I hope there is a solution and a future awaits us where we can confidently see zebra crossings as a safe place to get across the road.

Do you feel safe using zebra crossings?

Only if I can see cars are slowing down before I cross (85%, 224 Votes)

Yes, it's my right of way so I expect traffic to stop (14%, 37 Votes)

No, I avoid them if I can (2%, 4 Votes)

Total Voters: 265

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Mikhail says:
3 November 2011

I like the idea of zebra crossing, but I wait every time, until cars stop even on the traffic lights, because sometimes they don’t stop and I don’t want to ‘argue’ my pedestrian rights over my safety/health.

A £2000 fine, in this case, sounds reasonable, but it probably cost more to recover someone after the accident and punishment is not a solution over someone’s ruined life. I would suggest to install something ‘physical’ preventing cars from driving on zebra crossing while presence of pedestrians or red colour of traffic light. Plus this will make carjacking very difficult, as a result less CCTV will be needed, more lives will be saved, less crime involving carjacking and chase, smaller car insurance premiums, safer roads, less medical expenses on accidents.

Although, it sounds very expensive, but what could be more expensive than someone’s health/life?

I don’t see how a fine is an effective solution. Very occasionally I’ve driven across zebra crossings, mainly because I was driving in an unfamiliar place and/or the crossing was illogically located. People, in my experience, don’t wilfully drive across them so creating a massive fine doesn’t address the cause. Moreover, in the can difficult to spot pedestrians in poorly lit streets at night.

I’m with the RAC on this one – it’s all about putting these crossings in the right place. I suspect they’ve been used too much as a convenient alternative to lights because they are cheaper and the risk was deemed tolerable.

>People, in my experience, don’t wilfully drive across
In my experience a lot of them do and even look at you as they go past to show their contempt.
I was nearly hit by a Merc on a zebra the other month.
This is all about education and common courtesy for others. The problem is it is impossible to enforce – they are the sort of people who also use mobiles when driving or throw litter in the street.

We could make pedestrian crossings safer if they had barriers like level crossings. I don’t think that is the answer and the best approach is to decide the best approach on a case by case basis. A village zebra crossing could be OK, whereas a light controlled crossing is more appropriate on a busy urban road. It’s all about managed risk and taking action if there is a problem.

Perhaps we should do more to design cities so that pedestrians and motorists are kept apart far more than at present.

Zebra crossings are often not appropriate on major roads or on roads such as Hannah describes with two lanes running in the same direction where the view of a driver in the lane further from the waiting pedestrian might be obscured by a vehicle in the nearer lane. However, on minor roads they can usually be made safer by simple and economical measures such as road markings, changes in surface colour and texture, anti-skid treatments, advance warning signs, and road narrowings. More advanced measures would include islands or refuges, and carriageway surface treatment [eg paviours or cobbles to give audible and vibrating warnings and inhibit speed]. Higher-grade lighting is sometimes provided over zebra crossings and perhaps this should be standardised. Similarly the intensity of the beacons might perhaps be increased in daylight [or changed to LED lights] to give a sharper signal [especially where other signs and displays are in the background]. It might be worth experimenting with different flash timings or sequences, and alternating the flashes on either side of the road rather than synchronising them as is usual. It might help if the flashing speed changed as soon as a pedestrian was detected at the crossing point. Yellow cats’ eyes could be used on approaches to zebras and across the road corresponding with the white stripes. I suppose if you have to do all that we might as well switch over to puffin crossings completely, but so many drivers speed up as soon as they see the amber light pedestrians feel just as intimidated [can’t drivers understand that Amber means STOP and Red means DON’T GO?]

There is an excellent webcam that shows the Abbey Road zebra crossing and how it is being used.


I have just watched for a few minutes and seen plenty of pedestrians set off across the road without giving cars time to stop, and cars not stopping when pedestrians are on the crossing on this rainy morning. What surprised me most was the number of motorcyclists overtaking within the zig-zag lines before the crossing.

It is obvious that the zebra crossing helps keep traffic flowing and that everyone has to have their wits about them to avoid accidents. A light-controlled crossing would cause a lot more delay.

The Abbey Road crossing is now a Grade II Listed Building. I suspect it might be listed in the accident records too. At the very least it should be provided with modern LED beacons, which are much more conspicuous.

I looked at the crossing when the rush hour traffic had gone and pedestrians were not in a rush. Drivers stopping as people approached the crossing, pedestrians being much more considerate and some of them even waving thanks. A different world.

I think half the trouble with Zebra crossings is from people expecting cars to stop when in fact the rules state simply that vehicles should give way to pedestrians ‘on’ the crossing. Standing on the pavement by the crossing does not count as on the crossing so there is no obligation to stop.
I bet however that it is quicker to stop and wait for a friendly driver to stop for you than it would be to wait for a set of lights to change in your favour.
If people were simply a little more patient about waiting their turn rather than simply walking out in to the road (it doesn’t have to be a crossing to see that happen believe me) then there would be far fewer accidents.

Financially, the zebra is the only way. Why spend a small fortune because a few ( and I stress a few) motorists think they can ignore the law. If accidents have risen then we need to clamp down much harder on these motorists who break and ignore the law. If I have stepped on to the crossing with one or two feet then the motorist MUST give way. Full stop.

You seem to have missed the point Which!

Which is that it is all about pedestrian safety!

More pedestrians die or are severely injured at zebra xings than at traffic lighted xings with the same ratios of numbers of vehicles passing to numbers of pedestrians crossing. The justification for a highway authority to spend public funds to provide a new traffic light pedestrian xing [wholy new or replacing a zebra] is a cost benefit calculation based on traffic and pedestrian numbers to derive expected pedestrian accident savings.

I think there is more of a case for getting rid of zebras all together as they are not necessarily safer than no crossing at all as motorists ignore them and pedestrians think they can just rush out with right of way. You won’t change driver or pedestrian behaviour, it was the same fifty years ago.

A bit more research Which before you start the save a zebra campaign, safety first eh!

Just been watching the live Abbey Road crossing webcam for a few minutes [Sunday afternoon 16:30 Dusk]. Thanks for the link Wavechange [see above]. Fascinating. A number of people were crossing and recrossing to imitate the Beatles walk and some of them were daring drivers to stop. There was a group hanging around on the oncoming approach blocking the view of pedestrians standing at the kerb who would then set off across the zebra immediately in front of vehicles [including an ambulance all lit up and with beacons flashing – siren wailing too I should think!]. People from the “hanging around” group were taking [flash] pictures of vehicles slamming their brakes on or swerving. Although some drivers were going too fast to stop safely [and others were following too closely] the behaviour of these “pedestrians” was deplorable and extremely irresponsible. The antics of the people on the footway were prompting some drivers to brake sharply or stop when in fact there was no need to as no one was actually on the crossing. Is this behaviour normal for Abbey Road crossing? – I shall revisit this webcam another day; perhaps Sundays brings out the worst in people. I agree that overall [and ignoring misbehaviour] the traffic and pedestrian movements are kept flowing by the zebra in a way that would not be the case with a signal controlled crossing which would also have to have pedestrian guard rails and a lot more street “furniture”. Best drivers : Black Cabs & Buses. Worst drivers : Motorcycles.
LATEST: Just returned to the webcam . . . Man sitting in middle of zebra having his picture taken! What can I say? I’m in Norfolk and seldom go to London. I can hardly believe my eyes. Utter madness.

I saw the same on Saturday afternoon and evening. At one time there were about 20 people repeatedly crossing the road, taking photos and videos and holding up the traffic, even in front of a police van. I am amazed by the patience of drivers, though many did sound their horns.

The webcam allows stills to be recorded and it looks as if those involved are using the webcam to record and broadcast their exploits.

I am very glad I don’t have to drive along Abbey Road and I have never seen anything like this in the time that I have been driving. Perhaps there is a good case for a light controlled crossing here.

Must state I was run over by a sports car who overtook on the inside of the already stopped cars while I was halfway across a zebra crossing and didn’t stop. This was in the early 1950s. No viable crossing system would stop such irresponsible drivers.