Rules of the Road

Road Rules: When must I stop for a pedestrian?

A pedestrian crosses Magnolia Street in downtown Bellingham on Wednesday, Feb. 10. While this is a marked crosswalk, drivers also must yield to pedestrians at unmarked ones.
A pedestrian crosses Magnolia Street in downtown Bellingham on Wednesday, Feb. 10. While this is a marked crosswalk, drivers also must yield to pedestrians at unmarked ones. eabell@bhamherald.com

Question: Can you please explain crosswalks, and when motorists are supposed to stop, including unmarked crosswalks?

Answer: Ah, yes, crosswalks. On the surface it seems so obvious: When a pedestrian is in a crosswalk, drivers should stop. But there’s more to it than that, including the question, “What is a crosswalk?”

Until I read the definition of a crosswalk in the Revised Code of Washington years ago, I thought a crosswalk was the white paint on the road that pedestrians used to get across intersections. While that is a crosswalk, it is not the only kind. When you approach an intersection and see the stripes just beyond the stop line, you’re seeing a marked crosswalk. However, if you were to come to an intersection without the painted crossing markings, you’d still be approaching a crosswalk, but in this case it would be an unmarked crosswalk.

Confused yet? Just remember that painted on the road or not, that 10-foot-wide strip between where you’re supposed to stop at an intersection and where the lanes of travel cross over each other is a crosswalk.

That definition is important because when a pedestrian is in a crosswalk, marked or unmarked, drivers are to yield the right of way. There is, however, a minor exception, just to make things more complicated.

Here’s what the law says, edited for brevity: “The operator of an approaching vehicle shall stop to allow a pedestrian to cross the roadway when the pedestrian is upon or within one lane of the half of the roadway upon which the vehicle is traveling.”

Now in ordinary language for drivers: On a one-way street or any two-lane road, stop while the pedestrian is in any portion of the roadway. On a multi-lane road, stop if the pedestrian is in any lane in the direction you are traveling, and stop if the pedestrian is one lane away from any lane in the direction you are traveling. That sounds only slightly less confusing than the language in the law.

Let me try again. Imagine you’re driving along a four-lane road, with two lanes going in each direction. You’re in the right lane. You stop at an intersection and a pedestrian on the right side of the road steps into the crosswalk. The pedestrian walks past the front of your car and into the next lane. Can you go? Not yet. The pedestrian crosses the next lane and reaches the center of the road. Can you go? Not yet. The pedestrian crosses one lane in the other direction of travel. Can you go? Yep, you’re good to go.

By now you’re probably saying to yourself, “Get on with it, I understood what you’re trying to say just from reading the quote from the law.” OK, onward.

There’s one other rule in there that seems obvious, but I’ll cover it anyway: If you’re driving along and you see a car in front of you stopped for a pedestrian, you can’t drive around that car and pass it. It seems like that would be implied by the first part of the law, but I guess our legislators wanted to be abundantly clear about the situation.

There is so much more about crosswalks that it doesn’t all fit into one article. In a future Road Rules column we’ll cover pedestrian duties, crosswalk enforcement and survival skills.

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. Ask a question.

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