Rules of the Road

Road Rules: Stop for pedestrians before they enter crosswalk

Nanny Diane Kitchen crosses East Maple Street in Bellingham with the kids she is watching on Feb. 24, 2016. For safety’s sake, drivers should stop for pedestrians as soon as it appears the pedestrian is about to enter a crosswalk.
Nanny Diane Kitchen crosses East Maple Street in Bellingham with the kids she is watching on Feb. 24, 2016. For safety’s sake, drivers should stop for pedestrians as soon as it appears the pedestrian is about to enter a crosswalk. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Here’s part 2 of discussing crosswalks (part 1 published in mid-February).

Previously we answered the original question about when motorists are supposed to stop at crosswalks, but I want to go a few steps further and look at pedestrian duties, crosswalk enforcement and survival skills.

Let’s begin with rules for pedestrians crossing the street, first in crosswalks and then at other locations. At crosswalks, pedestrians really only have one rule: Don’t run out in front of a car, making it impossible for the driver to stop in time.

Again, seems obvious. However, have you ever seen a pedestrian step into a crosswalk, right in front of a car, because sending a text message was higher priority than checking for traffic? Cars are required to yield the right of way to pedestrians in crosswalks, but that doesn’t relieve the pedestrian of the requirement to pay attention and have reasonable expectations about how much distance it takes a car to stop.

Pedestrians also can cross a road in an area other than a crosswalk, but in this situation the pedestrian must yield the right of way to the driver. This is a riskier maneuver for pedestrians, because drivers don’t have the usual indicators to suggest a person might cross the street. And of course, there are a couple exceptions: Pedestrians are not allowed to cross the street anywhere other than at a crosswalk if the traffic on the street is controlled by traffic signals. So crossing mid-block in a neighborhood with stop signs at each end of the block – legal. Crossing mid-block in downtown Bellingham with traffic lights at each end of the block – illegal.

Also, unless authorized by a traffic control device, the law prohibits pedestrians from crossing intersections diagonally. That just sounds scary.

At an intersection that doesn’t have pedestrian control signals, at what point does a driver need to stop for a pedestrian who wants to cross the street? Or for the consequence-oriented folks, “At what point will I get a ticket?” The national crosswalk enforcement guidelines recommend enforcement when a pedestrian has demonstrated a clear intent to cross by stepping into the crosswalk.

But let’s think this through. In an effort to keep our kids safe, we teach them to make eye contact with oncoming drivers and wait until the cars stop to cross the street. If every kid follows that direction, and every driver exercises their right to continue driving until a pedestrian steps onto the crosswalk, we might have kids waiting to cross for a long time.

As drivers, it is important to recognize the potential threat of our vehicles as we approach crosswalks. As a matter of courtesy and safety, especially for more vulnerable pedestrians such as kids and the elderly, I’m going to step away from the rules for a moment and recommend that you stop at the crosswalk if it appears that pedestrians intend to cross, even if they haven’t made that first step and by the letter of the law you could zoom on by.

Finally, let’s discuss survival skills. Even though drivers are required to yield the right of way to pedestrians in a crosswalk, in a crash the pedestrian gets the bad end of the deal. As a pedestrian, look before crossing, try to assess the awareness of oncoming drivers, and make the effort to protect yourself from drivers who have not yet read this article, as well as the ones who chose to disregard everything in it. In the unfortunate event of a crash, your rights will help you win in court, but they won’t help heal a broken bone.

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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