Commentary: Clarifying Right-of-Way Confusion in Uncontrolled Crosswalks

Ped_crossing_Noriega_small.jpgFlickr photo: Warzau Wynn

Editor’s note: Matthew Ridgway is a principal at Fehr and Peers, a transportation design and engineering firm that routinely consults on pedestrian projects throughout the Bay Area.

The cardinal rule in street safety is to create conditions that are clear and predictable, so everyone knows what is expected of them and how other people are likely to behave. Yet recent research reveals very few drivers or pedestrians understand who has the legal right-of way at uncontrolled crosswalks, or those without a stop sign or traffic signal (PDF).

In California, the Vehicle Code requires drivers to yield to pedestrians at crosswalks, regardless of whether the crosswalk is marked. Unfortunately, the research showed the more complex the intersection, the less drivers and pedestrians understand who has the legal right-of-way. At intersections where no crosswalks are marked, nearly half of drivers
do not understand that they are legally required to yield to
pedestrians. 

As a result of the misunderstandings and in response to landmark safety studies, the report notes, "many agencies across the U.S. have elected to remove marked crosswalks at uncontrolled intersections, or have shown resistance to installing them in the first place."

It is incredible and extremely troubling that walking across the street can cause such confusion (there are more uncontrolled crosswalks in most cities than there are traffic signals). Pedestrians are overly represented in traffic collisions and even more disproportionately represented in fatalities. This is magnified by the fact that pedestrians are the most vulnerable
user group both because they are exposed (not protected by a large body
of metal) and because they are disproportionately likely to be younger,
older, and disabled as compared to the average driver.

So how do we fix this problem? Suggestions below include eliminating pedestrian right-of-way in unmarked uncontrolled intersections and automatically finding drivers responsible for any crash with a pedestrian in a crosswalk, solutions that will likely anger people on all sides of the debate. The strategies below will take considerable discussion before they can be
implemented and I sincerely hope that you will weigh in if you agree
or disagree with my suggestions:

xwalk_chart.jpgClick to enlarge
  • Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices: The MUTCD should be changed
    to improve pedestrian safety at legal crossings. Traffic engineers rely
    on warrants to create uniformity and predictability in the circumstances
    in which various traffic control devices are installed. While recent
    research has consistently demonstrated the need for the installation of
    enhanced infrastructure such as high visibility markings, medians, and
    beacons, crosswalks are routinely marked with just two 12-inch white
    lines, even on multi-lane roads where this is clearly an
    insufficient installation. In addition to allowing new
    crosswalk control types, future updates to the MUTCD should include
    guidelines for the use of these devices and should explicitly preclude
    basic crosswalk markings at locations where additional infrastructure is
    recommended in accordance to the research. The requirement for
    enhanced installations should not, however, be permitted as an excuse to fail to
    accommodate pedestrians. There should be a requirement to provide
    for safe and accessible pedestrian facilities at all significant desire
    lines. Specifically, where more than 30 pedestrians are observed
    crossing in any typical one hour period, a marked crosswalk should be
    installed.
  • Vehicle Code: With the changes to the MUTCD above, appropriately controlled, marked crosswalks would be more prevalent, but under current law, pedestrians have the legal right-of-way in any crosswalk (defined as the extension of a sidewalk across a street), regardless of whether it is marked. The Minimum Model Vehicle Code should be modified such that pedestrians have the right-of-way only in marked crosswalks. This could be viewed as pedestrian unfriendly, but this is the way unmarked crosswalks generally work today. Changing the condition such that pedestrians do not have legal right-of-way in unmarked uncontrolled crosswalks still allows pedestrians to use these crosswalks, but they would yield to vehicles when doing so, as most pedestrians do anyways.
  • Another change to the Vehicle Code would be that any collision involving a pedestrian that takes place in a crosswalk becomes automatically the fault of the driver (currently, both drivers and pedestrians can be found to be at fault). Personally, I would like to extend this portion of the Vehicle Code, like some northern European countries have done, to say that any pedestrian-involved collision occurring within or just outside of a marked crosswalk is the driver’s fault. This should serve to strengthen the driver’s sense of responsibility while operating a machine that is capable of killing people.
  • Driver’s Manual: Should the change to the Vehicle Code be implemented, a large public outreach effort would need to occur simultaneously with it. In addition, the driver’s handbook and training courses would need to be updated.

Tell us what you think of these ideas in the comments.

  • The #2 suggestion, what legal ramifications would there be if this was implemented? If someone is hit while crossing, does the driver has no fault since the pedestrian didn’t completely yield? What if the road is clear and an slower walker enters the crosswalk only to have a car come speeding up to the intersection?

  • Sorry, I think #3 would cover this. However, I see them as conflicting somewhat. #3 would be great though.
    “This should serve to strengthen the driver’s sense of responsibility while operating a machine that is capable of killing people.”

  • Charlie

    I find the whole idea of unmarked crosswalks to be a bit confusing, especially at T intersections. I think it’s pretty clear to most people that motorists must yield to someone walking along a roadway across a side street, whether there is a marked crosswalk or not. But it’s not clear that a pedestrian would have the right of way to cross the main road if there were not a side street on the opposite side. (Regardless of who has the right of way, though, motorists must always yield to pedestrians in order to avoid hitting them whether pedestrians have the right of way or not.)

  • Mike is right, the second and third points seem somewhat contradictory. If #2 is implemented, how could you justify enforcing #3.

    And, “This could be viewed as pedestrian unfriendly, but this is the way unmarked crosswalks generally work today. Changing the condition such that pedestrians do not have legal right-of-way in unmarked uncontrolled crosswalks still allows pedestrians to use these crosswalks, but they would yield to vehicles when doing so, as most pedestrians do anyways.”

    If it doesn’t change the operation of any intersection (where the rubber meets the road – and all to often meets someone’s face) then I don’t see the point in making this change the the CVC. It sounds like this is just throwing a bone to drivers who are going to complain about any infringement on their sense of entitlement.

    Pedestrians yield to things that can kill them – whether or not they have the right of way – out of common sense. That’s a good thing and it keeps people from dying. But the road user most capable of killing someone else shouldn’t get more rights to the road space just because of that threat of violence. Reductio ad absurdum, that would be like saying ‘people are going to rob single women on the street whether it’s illegal or not, so lets make it legal and demand that single women take more care to protect themselves.’

  • Nick

    Cars will dominate anything in their path unless there is infrastructure to indicate otherwise. To the average driver, pedestrians belong in crosswalks or sidewalks at all times. The same with bicyclists, they belong in bike lanes at all times.

  • Making a right-of-way distinction between marked and unmarked crosswalks seems like it will add to the current confusion, not lessen it. A uniform “pedestrian always has the right of way” seems to have better likelihood for reducing uncertainty and, as noted, peds are wise enough to not step into clearly dangerous conditions. #3 has more viability with more impact on drivers’ behavior. I’d like to see fault placed with drivers for collisions with peds anywhere on the street.

  • Charlie, yes pedestrians have the right of way at unmarked crosswalks even across the main road at a T intersection.

    The california drivers guide makes all this very clear.

    The easiest solution is to require passing the written test t renew the license, every 5 years.

    It blows my mind that streetsblog would advocate removing the pedestrian right of way at unmarked crosswalks. Unmarked crosswalks represent something like 95% of all crosswalks.

    From what I understand, the argument seems to be:

    “Drivers didnt read the manual and forgot the rules, so we should change the rules so the driver is right, and at the same time make crossing the road an even bigger burden to the pedestrian”

    What the hell?

  • tommy

    I cannot believe this writer is even hinting at removing pedestrians’ right of way at intersections. All this idea will do is make crossing the street–which people must do without having to walk very far out of their way–a little LESS safe than now because even though many drivers don’t fully understand the current law, there will be more drivers subsequently willing to be aggressive towards pedestrians. Especially if this law change makes the news, more drivers will hear about the fact that they have the right of way. It also gives police another way to hassle pedestrians (who are more likely to be young or a minority than the rest of the population).

    I remember when I got my license 10 years ago the message “pedestrians always have the right of way” was repeated over and over in the handbook. BUT, it wasn’t clarified that it is talking about marked and unmarked intersections. Thus most people read this part of the handbook and just think, “huh? I guess that means they always have the right of way in crosswalks and at intersections with stop signs but no crosswalk” At least that’s what I used to think!

    The reasonable solution to the problem is a public education campaign by the state–localities could also participate, including perhaps having signs–telling people that pedestrians have the right of way when crossing ANY intersection of two streets, regardless of whether there is a crosswalk, a stop sign, or nothin’. While we’re at it, include the part of the law that says pedestrians may cross the street (without ROW) at any location as long as one of the two nearest intersections–the one to the left and the one to the right–has no traffic signal. Why this information isn’t already given to those getting their license for the first time I have no idea.

    I also believe there’s a danger in emphasizing crosswalks– including the big fancy ones of late. It tends to make drivers think that, OK, if I don’t see a big elaborate crosswalk hitting me over the head, I don’t need to be cautious and keep an eye out for pedestrians. This is very similar to the problem of bike lanes– drivers will often pass closer to a biker if there’s a bike lane than if the street is the same width but there is no painted bike lane. The mentality of the driver is, “OK, he’s in his (tiny) designated space, I’m in my space…so it doesn’t matter if i get within a foot of him, because that line means neither of us will divert from our straight path.” whereas without the line, the driver is more likely to think that biker might move a little, so i’ll pass with several feet of space. Then there also is, as mentioned, the problem (more common in certain towns) of some drivers thinking bikes may or should ONLY be in bike lanes…

    As always, the way to improve things for pedestrians, bikes, general neighborhood livability, and business district appeal is to slow down cars! Educate the public on the law and on how often cars kill people, but also: lower speed limits, increase fines, narrow car lanes, and on neighborhood streets, make them share space with pedestrians and bikes rather than always trying to separate everyone (separating always leads to faster cars!)

  • Brian

    Great, I didn’t like being able to leave my block anyway, what with having to inconvenience the drivers blasting through uncontrolled intersections. Saves me from the tiring agony of walking more than half a block and them from having to pretend not to notice me.

    Want to clarify? “All intersections have crosswalks, unless otherwise stated. Unmarked crosswalks are still crosswalks. Pedestrians using crosswalks (with light, etc, etc) have the right of way over all vehicular traffic.”

  • eugho

    have any of the commenters above driven through or observed an intersection with lots of pedestrians and lots of car? while not gridlock, I would consider it dangerous for all users, IMHO. just when a driver thinks he is clear to go, a pedestrian will step into the crosswalk, marked or otherwise, trapping the driver in the middle of the intersection. this forces drivers to either dart through intersections faster or to “squeeze” between the pedestrian and the sidewalk. I routinely witness this at intersections in the Marina (along Chestnut) and at the alleys in the Mission.

    i think you’re missing the author’s point – that we need to come up with a way to eliminate confusion about who has the right-of-way. As long as we live in a multi-modal community, we need to consider the needs of all users who need to travel through a place. One way to do this is to force pedestrians to consider their actions before they blindly walk somewhere. And trust me, a lot of pedestrians do not “look both ways before crossing.”

  • Brian

    I bike through those intersections all the time.

    “i think you’re missing the author’s point – that we need to come up with a way to eliminate confusion about who has the right-of-way”

    That can’t be the point, because again, it’s a simple matter – the ped has the right of way.

  • Nick

    Sunset Blvd at Yorba is a good example where all the engineering in the world doesn’t deter motorists from taking away a pedestrian’s ROW. Why would anyone expect education to work in the absense of engineering?

    Further, it’s been 8 years since SF started installing sharrows and damn near no one knows what they mean.

  • “i think you’re missing the author’s point – that we need to come up with a way to eliminate confusion about who has the right-of-way”

    The law is pretty simple. Pedestrians always have the right of way at unmarked crosswalks, marked crosswalks without signals, and at marked crosswalks with signals when the signal says so. Pedestrians also have the right of way when the nearest crosswalk is far away, or unsignalized.

    The solution is education, via requiring written tests for license renewal.

    The solution is NOT changing the laws so those who dont know the law are no longer breaking it.

    “while not gridlock, I would consider it dangerous for all users,”

    Actually, these situations you describe are extremely safe. The cars move slowly through the intersection. If they hit a pedestrian, it’s at 5mph.

    Think of the parking lot. No speed limits, no cops, no crosswalks, no stop signs. And no deaths.

    Confusion can equal safety. Is someone going to back up? Is the old lady pushing the cart paying attention? Is that kid going to run to the SUV? So many variables = extreme caution by those who can cause the most harm (in cars).

    When the driver believes he was the right of way, say, on a road signed for 50mph thats straight and with no painted crosswalks, THEN you have danger.

    Again, the original article belongs on AAA.com, not streetsblog.

  • EL

    I think both #2 and #3 are a joke. To suggest in #2 that peds don’t have the right-of-way at an unmarked crosswalk basically says that peds don’t have the right-of-way at probably over 80% of the intersections in the City, where you’ll never see 30+ pedestrians in an hour at these intersections). Suggestion #3 invites a pedestrian to exercise zero caution, throw themselves into the side of a slow moving car during rush hour, and cash in during the upcoming lawsuit because the driver is automatically at-fault.

    If I was Fehr and Peers, I’d consider letting Mr. Ridgway go. You don’t need a principal being a liability/embarassment for your company, especially in these trying times.

  • Welcome to my nightmare at Main and Harrison I must cross to get home … How do I get a four way stop at this intersection since the bone headed drivers are too busy to get home to bother keeping my safety in mind. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s1Y0KVgnkUI

  • In MA they put a neon-green sign in the crosswalk in the middle of the street that says something like “state law: yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk”. If the question is how to get drivers to be aware of the law, an obvious solution like that might be worth a shot.

  • @Jass,
    This is exactly the debate we expected this article would foster when we accepted it from Matthew. We’d like to see all kinds of angles debated on this forum, including ones we might personally disagree with (like I do with suggestion two), so long as the debate is productive. I might guess you think this debate isn’t productive, but I hope you’ll continue to participate here and in other posts.

  • Alan

    The unmentioned social reality is the use of eye contact to establish a pedestrian’s safety when stepping into an intersection with traffic. Without that, or without a visible slowing of the vehicle, any intersection — and especially a marked one — is significantly unsafe for people wanting to cross.

    True in my experience at least — the drivers who blow by pedestrians are the ones staring straight ahead, either out of inattention or as a deliberately aggressive signal that they just “failed to notice” people trying to cross.

    The difficult with both unmarked and “complicated” intersections is therefore that they make the social-contract interaction between driver and pedestrian much less likely. Both better road engineering/signage and better education — along with occasional actual ticketing of infractions — need to be built in to traffic safety programs.

  • I agree with those who say we need an education campaign, including signs that motorists see regularly, saying that pedestrians have the right of way in all intersections, whether or not a crosswalk is marked. Lots of people don’t know the law.

    “have any of the commenters above driven through or observed an intersection with lots of pedestrians and lots of car? while not gridlock, I would consider it dangerous for all users”

    That may be true, but it is not the main issue here. Those intersections have marked crosswalks. This post is primarily about whether we should change the right of way laws at intersections with unmarked crosswalks.

    At busy intersections with traffic signals, I think the best way of reducing conflicts would be to ban right turns on the red light. When you try to walk across on the green light at busy intersections, there is usually a car blocking the crosswalk waiting to make a right turn.

  • patrick

    Education is all well and good, but without enforcement nothing will happen. Everybody knows speeding is illegal, but since the cops hardly ever enforce the speed limits, everybody speeds.

    If the police started heavily enforcing pedestrian right of way, people would start paying much more attention. We also need much stiffer penalties when a driver causes injury or death for violation of basic traffic laws, such as 1 year license suspension and/or vehicle impounding.

    I also think ticket penalties should go up for repeat offenders. Lower the amount for a first time offense, and each time a person gets a ticket (any ticket, not just for the same offense), the amount should be doubled. Every year that they don’t break the law the amount gets halved until it goes back to the base rate.

    Drivers get away with way to much dangerous activity, and the solution is most definitely not to put the responsibility on those who are on the losing end of the equation. The party who can cause the most potential harm should have the highest responsibility to behave properly.

  • tommy

    peternatural:
    I’ve seen those in the Bay Area as well, in the form of a foot-wide flexible sign maybe three feet tall right in the street. Yes, these are highly visible. But the “in crosswalks” part adds to the mistaken belief of most drivers that cars have the ROW at other intersections. And again, when you only make a relatively small percentage of crossings highly visual, car drivers start to — not necessarily consciously — actually EXPECT such announcements, and then eventually start to drive less attentively everywhere else. I believe pimped-out crosswalks usually do more harm than good when you consider the entire neighborhood or city. The only place they make sense is at special mid-block crossings of major thoroughfares (example: Soma).

  • Matthew Roth, Im all for debate, but by posting this on streetsblog, it acts as an endorsement to the idea. A debate could just as easily happen by linking to the post and saying “here’s what someone things about unmarked crosswalks”

  • @jass, that’s why it is labeled “Commentary,” our version of “Op Ed.” We’ve had numerous posts like this, including some on Sit Lie, on BP, etc. I think it’s not an endorsement at all.

  • tommy, yeah just today i noticed them on divisadero near the lower haight. seems like they could be effective in places where drivers are chronically disregarding pedestrians… if that ends up being nearly all intersections, so be it!

  • Matthew Roth, perhaps it is just me, but I have always thought that any article posted on streetsblog is the streetsblog line of thinking. Any link to another article (including quotes) is not.

    I rarely ever look at bylines. I only looked at this one today because I wanted to see if you were the author or not.

    I don’t think I’m alone in the assumption that an article is an endorsement of an idea. I don’t consider this website a fair and balanced news blog. Please don’t take that as an insult. I consider it an advocacy group with a specific leaning. That’s why I don’t expect to see opposing points of view posted as articles. I wouldn’t, for example, go to AAA.com to find articles about bikes and pedestrians, or Fox news to find the liberal opinion on a white house policy.

    May I recommend doing a survey? It’s possible that I am completely wrong and am the only one to make the assumption, but if I’m NOT alone, then you may be confusing or misleading many readers, and further differentiation of articles is in order.

  • Consultant

    One of the reasons why pedestrians always have the right of way at intersections is for blind pedestrians. Especially with quiet battery/hybrid cars, blind pedestrians cannot hear a car coming, so they have to assume that a car will yield to them.

  • jass, I can see where you’d get confused. I was reading it and came across #2 and was a bit taken aback myself. I had to reread it several times just to make sure I had what he was actually saying.

    However, it does say “Commentary” and it isn’t completely off base with pedestrian safety. Though I would agree that, being a pedestrian consultant, Mr. Ridgway is completely off base. But the point of including this was to spark a discussion and maybe we’ve succeeded in changing Ridgway’s mind.

    As for other commentary, I’m sure some readers don’t agree with critical mass or think sit/lie is a great idea – both had commentaries were posted here not too long ago. Maybe you just happened to agree with those views so they didn’t stick out as being different from other articles written.

    I think with it labeled “commentary” and with a small one sentence disclaimer saying who the person is, there is enough to distinguish this as something other then a Streetsblog article.

  • What I expect to see on StreetsBlog is challenging ideas from a variety of perspectives, that cause us to think outside the box and to have a better understanding of those who don’t support our positions. If StreetsBlog were politically correct, I’d stop reading it. So, though I disagree with several points in the post, I was very glad to see it, and glad to see the conversation it generated. I don’t post here, but I do support StreetsBlog with donations, because it is a voice I want to hear.

  • Matthew Ridgway

    I appreciate the various comments and want to reinforce that the post was intended to generate a discussion. My view is that the CVC is not nearly as clear as noted in several comments resulting in poor understanding of right-of-way laws, disproportionate numbers of pedestrians involved in collisions and few citations issued to motorists in the event of pedestrian collisions in crosswalks. Provision (b) of CVC section 2195 (see below), even with the caveat provided, creates uncertainty about whether it is a vehicle’s failure to slow and stop or a pedestrian’s failure to exercise due care that results in collisions. The suggestions that I put forward would remove subjective judgment for collisions taking place in marked crosswalks. They would also result in more and better marked crosswalks. That said, I understand the frustration and welcome other suggestions. I don’t consider a do-nothing approach to be viable as there is ample evidence that current crosswalk practices are inadequate.

    21950. (a) The driver of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within any marked crosswalk or within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection, except as otherwise provided in this chapter. (b) The provisions of this section shall not relieve a pedestrian from the duty of using due care for his or her safety. No pedestrian shall suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle which is so close as to constitute an immediate hazard. No pedestrian shall unnecessarily stop or delay traffic while in a marked or unmarked crosswalk. (c) The provisions of subdivision (b) shall not relieve a driver of a vehicle from the duty of exercising due care for the safety of any pedestrian within any marked crosswalk or within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection.

  • patrick

    @Matthew Ridgeway

    “The Minimum Model Vehicle Code should be modified such that pedestrians have the right-of-way only in marked crosswalks.”

    The other parts of your ideas are reasonable, but the above quote would be entirely unacceptable. To me it is ridiculous to remove the few rights that pedestrians have right now. I’m all for increasing driver responsibility, but it is ridiculous to say we should remove pedestrian right since drivers violate pedestrian right of way.

  • John

    What is a crosswalk? Does it include the area where the person is waiting to cross the street?

    I think so, but the legal description/definition in the Vehicle Code is murky. Seriously, the legal definition of a crosswalk needs to be expanded or made clear in layman’s terms. Even an expert traffic commentator recently incorrectly advised thousands of readers that a crosswalk was only the little white stripy markings across a road, and that pedestrians standing by the side of the road wanting to cross were not covered by the law because they weren’t “in the crosswalk.” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/27/AR2010072705133.html

    Compliance to the law at U.S. crosswalks will probably never be good without strenuous enforcement. Fines are probably not as useful as temporarily taking away driving privileges. Put a boot immediately on the car of a driver caught not yielding to pedestrians. Inconvenience the scofflaw drivers by riding the bus, biking, or walking for a week, and they would be much more attentive to their Common Law responsibilities.

  • The Vehicle Code definition could definitely be worded better, but the “portion of a roadway” part seems clear enough — if you are on the sidewalk waiting to cross, you are not in the roadway (“that portion of a highway improved, designed, or ordinarily used for vehicular travel”).

    I thought Oregon had passed a law extending the definition there to include the case where a pedestrian is standing on the sidewalk with a raised hand, but it looks like that didn’t actually pass.

  • coopity coop

    thats wrong

  • coopity coop

    In Ma….the only time a pedestrian has the right of way in a crosswalk is
    1 if they are in the process of crossing
    2 If there is a crosswalk with a non working light( meaning no traffic signal)
    3 thats it folks

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