Rules of the Road

At an intersection, is it OK to pull into an empty crosswalk to improve visibility?

Take care when using crosswalks in Bellingham

Pedestrian safety video from the City of Bellingham
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Pedestrian safety video from the City of Bellingham

Question: At an intersection, after I’ve stopped at the stop line, is it okay to pull forward for visibility if I end up blocking the crosswalk? If this is legal, do pedestrians have to wait until I leave the crosswalk to cross? When I did this someone walked out in front of me well outside the crosswalk.

Answer: This week we might get a little law-heavy trying to answer this question. That’s because there isn’t one specific law that gives us the complete answer.

Instead I’m relying on four separate traffic laws (along with a reference from the Washington Driver Guide) to get the full picture. Some, or maybe all, of these laws are familiar on their own, but mixing together this legal cocktail is what makes it work.

Let’s start with the initial stop. The Revised Code of Washington directs every driver approaching a stop sign to stop at the stop line; If there is no stop line stop before entering a marked crosswalk; If there is no crosswalk, stop at a point where the driver has a view of approaching traffic on the intersecting roadway.

The law doesn’t say that if you don’t have a good view from the stop line you should pull forward until you can see better. However, it also doesn’t prohibit it.

Working from the reasoning that anything not prohibited by law is permissible, it would be fine to pull forward after stopping to get a better view. Actually, it would be more than fine. Even if not explicitly required by law, safety demands it.

I would hope that no driver would enter an intersection without first being able to see if cars are coming. But it doesn’t address the question about blocking the crosswalk.

In an effort to validate my reasoning I checked the Washington Driver Guide, which clearly states, “Make sure you can clearly see crossing traffic before entering an intersection. If you were stopped and your view of a cross street is blocked, edge forward slowly until you can see.”

Alright, the driver guide has confirmed what I assumed from the law. But it still doesn’t address the crosswalk situation.

Looking at the crosswalk law made it clear that it’s not okay to pull into the crosswalk when there is a pedestrian using it, but we already knew that.

It didn’t give any advice about when pedestrians aren’t around. You might be tempted to use the same ‘if it’s not prohibited, it’s permitted’ reasoning we used earlier, and conclude that if there are no pedestrians it’s legal for a car to occupy that space to get a clear view of traffic. Although that conclusion is correct when narrowly applied to this scenario, the line of reasoning is not.

If we quit right here, a driver might conclude that they could block the crosswalk any time pedestrians aren’t using it. That’s where they’d be wrong.

In a separate section of traffic law there is a law titled, “Stopping, standing, or parking prohibited in specified places.” The first point in that law it states that no person shall stop a car on a crosswalk. Case closed, right?

Actually, there is an exception. The law does leave a provision to stop on a crosswalk in order to avoid conflict with other traffic. Based on all of the above, I’d conclude that if you:

stop at an intersection prior to the crosswalk,

realize that you’ll need to pull forward in order to get a view of cross traffic before entering the intersection,

confirm that there are no pedestrians using the crosswalk,

and then pull forward onto the crosswalk as necessary to see and avoid conflict with traffic in the intersection,

your actions are both legal and safe.

And what about the pedestrian that walked around the front of the question-asker’s car? In the law about crossing the street in locations other than crosswalks it states that when pedestrians cross the street at any point other than within a crosswalk they must yield right-of-way to all vehicles on the road.

That sounds to me like the pedestrian was wrong to walk outside of the crosswalk and go around the front of the car. But this is one of those scenarios where the consequences of the law are insignificant compared to the potential consequences of reality. Stepping in front of a car when the driver is focused on looking for an opening in traffic is not a good life-extending strategy.

Both the driver and the pedestrian have an obligation to avoid getting in a conflict with each other, but the pedestrian clearly has the most to lose if one or both of them fail in their obligations.

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Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. 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.

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