Rules of the Road

Walking on the right side of roads only part of the story for keeping pedestrians safe

Safety tips for pedestrians

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates 32 percent of all pedestrian fatalities occur between 8 pm and midnight. Here are a few simple tips to help keep yourself safe while walking near traffic.
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National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates 32 percent of all pedestrian fatalities occur between 8 pm and midnight. Here are a few simple tips to help keep yourself safe while walking near traffic.

Question: Washington state law states that when sidewalks are not provided, pedestrians shall walk only on the left side of the roadway or its shoulder facing traffic and upon meeting an oncoming vehicle shall move clear of the roadway. Why is this law seldom enforced or ever publicized?

Answer: Walking along the road with your back toward traffic is, as you clearly quoted from the law, illegal. And it’s a bad idea.

If you’re sharing the road with 4000 pound projectiles, I’d think you’d want to see them coming. But is it the worst idea?

It seems like we have a good opportunity here to investigate the greatest safety risks to pedestrians. Let’s work through the list of common factors in pedestrian fatal crashes. (Data is from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration unless noted otherwise.)

Urban areas – 76 percent: This one is pretty obvious. If you have a more cars and people, you’ll probably have more collisions with cars and people. As it turns out, over three-fourths of pedestrian fatalities occur in urban areas.

Darkness – 75 percent: This comes in at a close second, and it’s one that we could easily reduce with a little individual effort.

Think about the last time you crossed the street at night. If you saw a car coming, did you assume the driver could also see you?

I’ve been guilty of that assumption, but the reality is, unless I’m wearing or carrying something reflective, a human is hard to see at night. If you’re wearing dark clothes (like a true Washingtonian) your visibility could be limited to as little as 33 feet.

White clothing bumps that up to 180 feet, a good improvement, but nothing like retro-reflective material, which gives as much as 500 feet of visibility. Considering that the average stopping distance for a car traveling 40 mph on a wet road is about 200 feet, it’s time to add more reflective jackets to my wardrobe.

Non-intersection – 72 percent: If I had to guess, I wouldn’t have thought this would be so high. Most pedestrians cross the street at intersections, so I expected the frequency of crashes between intersections and non-intersections to be closer. It makes sense though.

Drivers anticipate seeing pedestrians at intersections so they’re more prepared to stop for them, and drivers generally travel at slower speeds through intersections, so crashes that do happen are more survivable (see the section on speed below).

Intersection crashes make up 18 percent of pedestrian fatalities, leaving 10 percent for other locations, which includes roadsides/shoulders, bike lanes, sidewalks and pretty much everywhere else a car shouldn’t be driving.

Gender – 70 percent: I don’t presume to speak on behalf of my entire gender, but it doesn’t seem unrealistic to me that over two-thirds of pedestrians killed in car crashes are men. Men die far more than women in nearly every driving category: impairment, speeding, motorcycles, trucks, bicycles. The only category where women out-perform (and I mean that in its most negative sense) is in distraction, where they are involved in slightly over half of distracted driving fatalities.

Impairment – 48 percent: You might assume I mean impaired drivers. I don’t. Or, at least, I mostly don’t.

Nationally, alcohol impaired drivers are responsible for 13 percent of pedestrian fatalities. In contrast, 33 percent of pedestrians killed in crashes had a blood alcohol content of over .08, and another five percent tested positive for alcohol with a BAC below .08. These numbers don’t include drug impairment. In Washington a report by WSDOT found that 48 percent of pedestrians killed in crashes were impaired by alcohol and other drugs.

It isn’t illegal to walk impaired, but it sure doesn’t help your odds of getting home safely.

Speed: The posted speed limit on a road has a big influence on the survivability of a crash. At 20 mph the survival rate for pedestrians is 93 percent. At 50 mph the survival rate is 25 percent. If you have to cross or walk along a road, try to pick the one with the slowest speed limit.

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Walking along a road without a sidewalk with your back toward traffic in Washington state is illegal and a bad idea for safety sake. Darkness, impairment and speed also impact pedestrian deaths. Staff McClatchy file

Walking on the wrong side of the road: This one is either at the top of the list, or the bottom, depending on how you rank the data. As mentioned earlier, this kind of crash fits into that 10 percent category, so it’s not as frequent. However, if we’re just looking at crashes involving pedestrians walking along the side of the road, pedestrians facing traffic have a 77 percent lower risk of being struck by a car than those walking with their back toward traffic.

Walking near traffic contains an inherent risk, but it’s something we can manage if we try. If you’re an unimpaired woman wearing reflective clothing walking toward traffic on the shoulder of a 20 mph road, you’ll probably be alright. If you’re a drunk male wearing dark clothing walking in the lane of a high-speed roadway with your back toward traffic you’re doomed already.

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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