Rules of the Road: Can pedestrians legally cross once countdown timer has started?

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 23, 2013 

Question: With the introduction of more pedestrian countdown walk signals at Bellingham intersections, I've noticed more pedestrians entering a marked crosswalk after the "Walk" signal has switched to "Don't Walk." Sometimes they make it across before the light changes. Other times they are still in the crosswalk and blocking cross traffic that has a green light. Is it a violation for a pedestrian to enter a crosswalk when the signal has switched from "Walk"? Can they block traffic with a green light because they are still in the crosswalk? Do police ever issue warnings or fines for this? If so, what is the fine amount?

Answer: It would be illegal to enter the crosswalk after the signal has changed from the "Walk" to the flashing "Don't Walk," which it does when the countdown timer has started. The countdown is only to show pedestrians in the crosswalk how much time is left to finish crossing the street.

Yes, it is illegal to block traffic by being in the crosswalk when the light has changed to green for the cross traffic. Yes, police occasionally issue warnings and/or a ticket for this. The charge is for "Failure to Obey a Traffic Control Device." The amount of the fine is more difficult to pin down as it can vary by jurisdiction. No matter what the penalty is, there are better ways to spend the money.

The applicable statutes are RCW 46.61.050, Obedience to and required traffic control devices (what the fine is imposed under) in conjunction with RCW 46.61.060, Pedestrian control signals (where the definitions are given). "Whenever pedestrian control signals exhibiting the words 'Walk' or the walking person symbol or 'Don't Walk' or the hand symbol are operating, the signals shall indicate as follows:

"(1) WALK or walking person symbol - Pedestrians facing such signal may cross the roadway in the direction of the signal. Vehicle operators shall stop for pedestrians who are lawfully moving within the intersection control area on such signal as required by RCW 46.61.235(1).

"(2) Steady or flashing DON'T WALK or hand symbol - Pedestrians facing such signal shall not enter the roadway. Vehicle operators shall stop for pedestrians who have begun to cross the roadway before the display of either signal as required by RCW 46.61.235(1)."

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David Wright is a retired officer from the Bellingham Police Department who is now on the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force.

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