Sharing the Road with Pedestrians: Right-of-Way, Crossings and PenaltiesUpdated Nov. 20, 2020
Keeping pedestrians safe is a shared responsibility. Drivers and pedestrians must all abide by certain rules to avoid pedestrian injury. As pedestrians are the most vulnerable road users, drivers will usually be held responsible when an auto-pedestrian accident occurs. Remember that in a car accident involving a pedestrian, the pedestrian always loses.
Drivers must yield to pedestrian right-of-way at all times. Having lawful right-of-way will not protect you from prosecution if you injure a pedestrian and are found to be driving carelessly.
Right-of-way rules for pedestrians and drivers
Legally, a pedestrian has the right-of-way when crossing the road at any marked or unmarked crosswalk at an intersection. Proceed with caution when there are pedestrians nearby who may cross in front of your vehicle. Always come to a full stop at intersections when pedestrians are using the crosswalk.
As a driver, you only have the right-of-way at a crossing that is marked with a pedestrian traffic light when the signal is red or displays a DON’T WALK sign to pedestrians. This indicates that pedestrians seeking to use the crosswalk should yield to approaching drivers. However, you must never forcibly claim right-of-way if you can see that a pedestrian is using the crosswalk despite a DON’T WALK signal being active. Should you injure a pedestrian passing in front of your vehicle in this situation, you are likely to be held responsible.
Pedestrians always have the right-of-way on sidewalks. You must never drive onto or across the sidewalk, unless doing so to access an alley or driveway. When driving on the sidewalk is necessary, you must always yield to pedestrians wishing to cross your path before proceeding.
Crossing laws and driver responsibility
While the law takes precedence, the following basic guidelines always apply. Stick to these rules regardless of who has the right-of-way.
Never overtake a vehicle that has stopped at a pedestrian crosswalk. A pedestrian using the crosswalk could be obscured from your view by the vehicle in front.
Keep watch for pedestrians behind your vehicle while reversing. Maneuver slowly and look behind your car. Do not rely solely on your mirrors to check whether the path behind you is clear of pedestrians.
Never drive on a sidewalk unless it is necessary to enter or exit an alley or driveway.
Be vigilant around buses, streetcars and light rail vehicles. Yield to pedestrians leaving or boarding these vehicles.
Always yield to pedestrians using motorized or mobility-assistance devices who are seeking to cross the road.
Blocking a crosswalk with a stopped vehicle is prohibited. Doing so puts pedestrians at risk, as they may be forced to step into the road while moving around your vehicle.
School buses and areas where children are present
Drive with extreme caution near schools, playgrounds and play areas where children may run into the street without warning. Five-sided school advance warning signs indicate that a school is nearby. Be vigilant throughout the day, as children may arrive late or leave early, and not take care to use the pedestrian crosswalk correctly.
Be aware that a stopped school bus could be obscuring children who are about to cross the road. School buses are typically equipped with red flashing lights to warn motorists that they have stopped for children to board or disembark. Drivers must stop for a school bus with flashing red lights at a minimum distance of 25ft if they are traveling on a two-lane road, a privately maintained road, or a multi-lane highway where lanes are only separated by lines.
Yield to visually-impaired pedestrians
Take special care around blind and partially sighted pedestrians. Visually handicapped pedestrians will usually be traveling with a guide dog or a white cane, which may or may not have a red tip. Any driver who does not yield to a visually impaired pedestrian - or who does not take the necessary precautions to protect a visually impaired pedestrian crossing the road - may be found guilty of a misdemeanor. The penalty for such an offense may be a fine, a jail term, or both.
Keep in mind that visually impaired pedestrians will often use the sound made by your car engine as a point of reference, to locate the crosswalk and help them cross the street. For this reason, drivers should never stop more than five feet away from the crosswalk. Drivers of electric and hybrid vehicles must be aware that their cars are extremely quiet compared to most other vehicles on the road. Be especially watchful for blind pedestrians as they may not be able to hear you.
The following guidelines also apply to visually-impaired pedestrians:
- Do not honk your horn or verbally instruct a partially-sighted pedestrian to cross the street – it is not helpful. This will distract and disorient the pedestrian, putting them at greater risk of injury. They have the right-of-way in this situation and are free to decide when it is safe to cross the walkway by themselves.
- If a blind or visually impaired pedestrian has stepped back from the crosswalk and pulled back their cane, this generally means it is safe to go. Do not wait too long to move off and proceed with care.
Injuring a pedestrian - penalties
What happens if a driver disregards pedestrian crossing law? Any driver that causes bodily injuries to a pedestrian at a crosswalk by failing to yield or by forcing right-of-way will be fined, and points may be added to their license. The size of the fine is determined by state law and whether it was a first, second or third infraction.
For example, in the state of California, failing to yield at a crosswalk results in the following penalties:
- For the first infraction, a fine of $220
- For the second infraction (if it is within one year of the first infraction), a fine of $320
- For any subsequent infraction which occurs within a year of two or more previous infractions, a fine of $370
These figures are included to give you an idea of what you may be charged. In some states, third infractions can warrant a fine in excess of $750. Check your state driver’s handbook for up-to-date information on the fines and penalties you would incur if caught failing to yield.
Drivers who are caught passing a vehicle that has stopped for a pedestrian at a crosswalk will also be fined. These penalties vary from state to state and are influenced by the severity of the incident (i.e. whether and how seriously a pedestrian is injured). As with failing to yield at a crosswalk, the fine issued will be larger for repeat offenders.
Any driver who illegally overtakes another vehicle stopped at a crosswalk or fails to yield to pedestrians may also be subject to criminal charges, if death or serious injury has been caused.
Most drivers would define a pedestrian as a person on-foot using sidewalks and crosswalks. Remember that road workers are pedestrians too. In fact, they are among the most likely to sustain injuries as the result of an auto-pedestrian accident.
When approaching any road work area, drive slowly and follow the instructions you are given by the road workers – without argument. Careless drivers injure thousands of road workers every year, despite the orange signs, safety equipment, flags and high-visibility jackets that are used at these sites.
Driving irresponsibly around a road work zone is a serious offense, for which traffic violation penalties are often doubled. Double fines may also apply to any zone in which the local traffic authority has set up temporary restrictions. Getting held up by traffic restrictions can be frustrating, but keep in mind that failing to follow the rules will achieve nothing but a hefty fine and a whole lot of trouble.
Avoiding a car-pedestrian accident
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 5376 pedestrians were fatally injured in road traffic collisions around the United States, in 2015 alone. Driving responsibly will minimize the likelihood of injuring a pedestrian, should they step out in front of your vehicle unexpectedly.
Factors such as weather conditions, reaction time, the weight of your vehicle and brake conditions will all impact stopping distance, not to mention the speed at which you are traveling. The faster your car is going, the longer it will take to stop.
Drivers who abide by the speed limit are more likely to avoid collisions. If a collision cannot be avoided, the pedestrian involved has a better chance of survival the slower you are traveling on impact. Consider that a pedestrian struck by a vehicle traveling 20mph has roughly a 95 percent chance of survival, whereas at 40mph their chances will plummet to just 15 percent.
The information below shows what a dramatic difference a slight reduction in speed can have on total stopping distance.
- A vehicle traveling at 30mph has a total stopping distance of 102ft
- A vehicle traveling at 40mph has a total stopping distance of 167ft
A difference of just 10mph adds a staggering 65ft to the total stopping distance of your vehicle. For the pedestrian you are braking to avoid, a minor reduction in speed could mean the difference between life and death.
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