Question: Recently, I was walking on the sidewalk at night to a grocery store, and I crossed the crosswalk at the entrance to the store. As I was walking, a car tried to pull in, and then noticed me, which left her stuck in traffic. She then proceeded to say, “Maybe you should wear bright clothes.” I had a near-white jacket on, so I don’t know how much brighter I could have been unless I wore some Christmas lights around my neck.
My question: Is it required by law to wear bright clothing while walking legally on the sidewalk at night? Isn’t this the responsibility of the driver to look for pedestrians at or in crosswalks, no matter if it is day or night?
Answer: Your reference to Christmas lights makes this the closest thing to a holiday-themed question I’ve seen, so merry Christmas, and you’re absolutely right. Drivers have a responsibility to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks (RCW 46.61.235), regardless of what they’re wearing. There is not a subsection in the law recommending that upon encountering a pedestrian in dark clothing, the driver should shout directives about proper night-time attire or gently nudge the pedestrian with the vehicle’s bumper.
Even in the section of the law on pedestrians’ duties, there are no laws specifying what a pedestrian must wear during hours of darkness. There is, however, a law that requires drivers to be cautious about not hitting pedestrians. I’m not kidding. The law basically says, “We know there is this whole book of laws telling you how to drive safely, but just to be clear, don’t run over pedestrians. Especially kids.”
From a legal perspective, a pedestrian in a crosswalk has the high ground, but there’s more to traffic safety than being legally right. Most everyone is familiar with the term “dead wrong”, meaning that one couldn’t be any wronger. (Like my grammar in that last phrase.) But there is also “dead right.” This is when you’re legally in the right but you still end up dead because someone else didn’t recognize your legal standing.
Being right doesn’t automatically prevent a crash, and it isn’t a phenomenon limited to just bike riders and walkers. A driver who has a green light and doesn’t still look both ways is at risk of being hit by another driver who overlooked the red light. But a pedestrian or cyclist who depends solely on having the right-of-way has a lot more to lose.
In the scenario described in the original question, it sounds like both the pedestrian and the driver were alert enough to avoid a physical confrontation, and instead just had a social one. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. I don’t know what the ratio of alert to oblivious drivers is, but when I’m walking or riding my bike, I assume that I’m dealing with the second category until I make eye contact and confirm that the driver is in the first category.
When it comes to clothing, I’ve seen some people wear bright or reflective jackets at night, but it’s usually limited to people who make running or walking their primary objective. If we as motorists are honest, we often become pedestrians, however brief, when we park our cars and then have to cross the street to our final destination. I know that in those situations I don’t think about what I’m wearing, and like a good Washingtonian, most of my winter jackets are gray or black. The writer of the original question hinted, maybe unintentionally, at a solution.
The idea about Christmas lights around the neck really isn’t too far off. I recently spoke with a police chief that, in response to an increasing number of car-vs.-pedestrian crashes, has equipped her officers with small lights to hand out to pedestrians they encounter at night. Don’t have a police chief handing you a blinking light? If you have a smartphone (and who doesn’t any more?) download a flashlight app and use it when you’re walking near traffic at night.
Having the law on your side will help you win in court should you get hit by a car, but being visible and alert will help you avoid the crash altogether. Enjoy the holidays and drive (and walk) wisely.
Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.