Rules of the Road

Do I have to stop for a bicyclist at a crosswalk?

A bicyclist rides across a crosswalk on Magnolia Street in downtown Bellingham.
A bicyclist rides across a crosswalk on Magnolia Street in downtown Bellingham. The Bellingham Herald file

Question: When I approach a pedestrian crosswalk and someone is sitting on a bicycle with the intent to ride it across (as opposed to walking it), am I required to stop?

Answer: Basically, yes. The law requires drivers to treat cyclists in a crosswalk the same way they do pedestrians. RCW 46.61.235 groups the terms “pedestrian” and “bicycle” together, making it abundantly clear that any requirements that apply to drivers stopping for crosswalk occupants include people on foot and on bikes.

The tricky part of your question is actually the word “intent.” Even though we often hear that term used when talking about when to stop for pedestrians at a crosswalk, the law is not based on the intent of a person approaching a crosswalk. According to the law mentioned above, a driver doesn’t actually have to stop unless a person has entered the crosswalk. Scary, right?

As a pedestrian (or cyclist), it takes a lot of courage to step (or roll) into a street when a vehicle is approaching. Even if there is plenty of room for the vehicle to stop, the driver might not be paying attention to people crossing the street. Stopping distance is irrelevant if a driver doesn’t look up from texting, for example.

I know the original question was, “Am I required to stop?” But an equally important question, from a pedestrian or cyclist point of view, is, “When is it safe to go?”

For help answering that question, I used the Pedestrian Safety Enforcement Guide from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This book provides guidance for law enforcement officers conducting pedestrian safety enforcement. To do that, a plain-clothes officer crosses a street, and if an oncoming driver doesn’t stop for the pedestrian (officer), a nearby officer stops the car and takes enforcement action. This guide has some safety recommendations for the plainclothes officer. As you read them, imagine applying these rules to every pedestrian:

▪ Avoid inclement weather, wet road surfaces and limited visibility conditions. (That eliminates nearly half of the days in any given year in the Northwest.)

▪ Stick to daytime operations. (In the winter, that means no crossing streets after about 4 p.m.)

▪ Wear bright clothing (in contrast with the Northwest tradition of black, brown, gray and navy jackets).

▪ Have an unobstructed view of traffic in both directions.

▪ Avoid roadways with high speed limits or a large number of lanes.

▪ Don’t cross in front of trucks or buses.

▪ Be capable of quickly moving out of traffic (limiting people with mobility challenges from crossing the street).

Some of those recommendations are rock-solid, but expecting pedestrians to follow everything listed in the guide for pedestrian enforcement safety is unrealistic. Of course, in the name of safety we could apply the first two rules to cars, too. Then no one would get anywhere between October and April.

There is an inherent danger in putting 2-ton-plus motorized vehicles in proximity with unprotected road users. The Legislature recognizes this, and has written a couple of laws that, reduced to their core, say, “Hey, cars, you’re big and you can crush people, so watch out.” The first of these laws, on the books since at least 1965, says, “Every driver shall exercise due care to avoid colliding with any pedestrian upon any roadway.”

In 2012, legislators passed an enhancement to the negligent-driving law that addresses vulnerable road users. Because this law is fairly new and unfamiliar to many people (including some working in the criminal justice system), next week I’ll dedicate the column to explaining this law and why it matters.

All of us as road users have a responsibility to watch out for each other. The goal of transportation is arriving safely at our destinations. Let’s help each other and make sure we all get where we’re going.

Inside tip: Expect extra pedestrian safety patrols in Bellingham this spring. I’d recommend getting in the habit of watching for (and stopping for) pedestrians right now.

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 Ask a question.