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.

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