Rules of the Road

Should drivers wave pedestrians into a crosswalk without lights or a traffic signal?

Question: I have seen drivers stop at an “unlighted” crosswalk and direct pedestrians standing on the curb to cross in front of them, oblivious of the cars behind them or along side of them (In my opinion, creating a deadly hazard). Is the driver acting safely, and shouldn’t the pedestrians wave the driver to pass?

Answer: I’ve been a pedestrian for most of my life (an obvious statement), but in the last year I’ve experienced a new pedestrian phenomenon I’ll call “the stroller exception.”

About a year ago I became a grandfather, and now on frequent occasions, I get to go on walks with my granddaughter, pushing her in her stroller. Often when we are headed toward a crosswalk, a driver will stop for us, even if the driver doesn’t have a stop sign and we aren’t even close to the edge of the road yet.

That’s an experience I don’t get when I’m walking by myself.

I bring up the stroller exception because it’s an example of how we exist in a world made of both laws and culture. There is generally a lot of overlap, but it’s not always the same.

Legally the driver in the previous scenario isn’t required to stop, but the law doesn’t prohibit stopping, and culturally we value looking out for little people. We’re faced with the challenge of harmonizing our compliance with the law and our culture-influenced instincts.

The original question asked about “unlighted” crosswalks. I’m going to presume that “unlighted” refers to intersections without traffic lights or pedestrian walk signals. Keep that in mind as we work through the rules.

What the law says

Let’s start with the law. The Revised Code of Washington requires a driver (or as written in the law “operator of an approaching vehicle” — why use one word when five will do?) to stop to allow a pedestrian, cyclist and (this part is new) personal delivery device to cross the road.

The requirement to stop is triggered when the person, bike or robot “is upon or within one lane of the half of the roadway upon which the vehicle is traveling or onto which it is turning.”

It takes a few readings to make sense of that sentence; here’s an attempt at explaining it by way of exception: You always have to stop for a pedestrian in the roadway unless the roadway is four or more lanes and the pedestrian is at least a lane-width away from all the lanes going in the direction you’re traveling.

Can we acknowledge that this law isn’t perfect?

A driver isn’t required by law to stop until the pedestrian puts a foot (or a stroller) in the roadway.

As you might imagine, many reasonable people are hesitant to step into a roadway without full confidence that approaching drivers will see them and stop.

In moderate traffic a cautious pedestrian might not ever feel convinced that it’s the right time to cross the street.

And then the friendly driver comes along, sees the pedestrian waiting on the curb, and stops, even though not legally required. Is this, as our question asker suggested, “creating a deadly hazard”?

I don’t think so, and I’m basing that response on another law.

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Joe Lingebloom walks across the crosswalk at St. Paul Street and Alabama Street in February 2014. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

Exercising care

The RCW has a law titled, “Drivers to exercise care.” It states that “notwithstanding the foregoing” (which basically means everything that follows prevails over what has come before) “every driver shall exercise due care to care to avoid colliding with any pedestrian . . .”

Even if you’re not required to stop based on the crosswalk law, if you think you could potentially have a conflict with a pedestrian you should take action to avoid it.

Sometimes that might mean stopping even when it wouldn’t otherwise be required. The law wants us to go beyond the bare minimum requirements of driving rules and take extra measures to avoid running over someone.

All of this should be in the context of predictable driving behavior.

There is probably a scenario where stopping for a pedestrian waiting on the sidewalk isn’t the right choice. Whenever we’re changing our driving pattern, whether that’s stopping, turning, merging or anything else, we should do it in a way that helps other road users anticipate our actions.

If that’s stopping for a pedestrian, we should slow down at a rate that allows other drivers to respond and stop with us. When we integrate our understanding of the law and our cultural values into our driving, we’ll all be safer on the roads.

I should note that a generation ago I pushed my own kids in their strollers, but I didn’t notice the stroller exception. I suspect it was happening but as a new parent I was too sleep-deprived to pay attention.

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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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