Close Call at the Crosswalk

Walk SignalA pedestrian pushing a child in a stroller and the driver of a van approach an intersection controlled by a traffic light with a pedestrian signal. Both the traffic light and the pedestrian signal are red. The driver is in the lane next to the pedestrian who arrives at the cross street and stops seconds before the driver arrives at the stop line.

The traffic signal turns green and the pedestrian signal turns white. No longer needing to stop, the driver turns right as the pedestrian starts to move ahead. Were it not for the crosswalk obstruction caused by incomplete snow removal making it difficult to push the stroller ahead, it's entirely possible that I would have watched a collision occur.

Section 132 of the Motor Vehicle Act sets out the rules for pedestrian signals. It says in part that:

When the word "walk" or an outline of a walking person is exhibited at an intersection by a pedestrian traffic control signal, a pedestrian may proceed across the roadway in the direction of the signal in a marked or unmarked crosswalk and has the right of way over all vehicles in the intersection or any adjacent crosswalk.

It looks fairly promising for the pedestrian at first glance, doesn't it? Right of way over all vehicles in the intersection should mean pedestrians first, shouldn't it?

The driver was not in the intersection yet, but section 127 covers this situation:

A pedestrian facing the green light may proceed across the roadway in a marked or unmarked crosswalk, subject to special pedestrian traffic control signals directing him or her otherwise, and has the right of way for that purpose over all vehicles.

Finally, section 181 puts a further onus on the driver:

A driver of a vehicle must exercise due care to avoid colliding with a pedestrian who is on the highway

The sidewalk is part of the highway.

Clearly, this driver was required to yield to the pedestrian, but should she have moved to cross? Having the right of way is not a physical protection from harm. The painted lines of the crosswalk don't help either as they are not a barrier.

She has a duty of care to both herself and the child to insure that it is safe before she proceeds. Had a collision occurred and a hearing to decide liability held, the justice would have reminded her of this and apportioned some of the blame to her for relying solely on right of way rules.

Let's take a look at crosswalks that don't involve any traffic lights while we're on the subject.

If you take ICBC's on line practice test for drivers, one of the questions shows two pedestrians standing on the sidewalk, mid block, each facing the other across a marked crosswalk and asks what the driver must do. According to the test, the driver must stop and let the pedestrians proceed.

Our rulebook takes a slightly different view in section 179:

The driver of a vehicle must yield the right of way to a pedestrian where traffic control signals are not in place or not in operation when the pedestrian is crossing the highway in a crosswalk and the pedestrian is on the half of the highway on which the vehicle is travelling, or is approaching so closely from the other half of the highway that he or she is in danger.

As I learned to my chagrin in court one day, the driver does not have to yield unless the pedestrian is actually in the crosswalk. Standing on the sidewalk looking across does not qualify.

A pedestrian must carefully step into the crosswalk and wait for a driver to yield before crossing in this instance.

Keep section 179 in mind though, as you must wait until it is safe to do so:

A pedestrian must not leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle that is so close it is impracticable for the driver to yield the right of way.

Being a Driving Instructor, I can tell you there are many times when a student will ask about whether they should yield to a pedestrian at or in or approaching a crosswalk. And sometimes, it's a lot more ambiguous, such as when the pedestrian is on the other side of the road and there isn't really any conflict.

My stock answer has always been, 'How do you see your role as a driver? You're driving a vehicle, with the ability to do tremendous damage to a pedestrian; so do you want to use that vehicle to protect those vulnerable pedestrians - or to compete with them?' Suddenly, it's not a right-of-way question, it's become a matter of personal choice and responsibility.

As for the situation in question, absolutely no doubt in my mind - whether it be a moral decision or a legal decision, the driver of that Sprinter wasn't fulfilling any obligation to anybody except him/herself to try and get where they're going soonest. If I was a Driver Examiner seeing this, it would be a Dangerous Action and consequent Fail for the driver. If I was a Police Oficer witnessing this, I would be handing the driver a ticket under Section 144 - not under Section 127.

I err on the side of caution. The law used to be, I thought (been driving 40 years now) that if the pedestrian is anywhere in the intersection, you have to wait. That makes sense to me because even in your case when the P is on the other side and there's "no conflict", if the P is coming towards, say, where that van is turning in the video, towards the camera rather than across the field of view, a situation can arise where there are other vehicles turning behind the van. They may follow the car in front of them and not see the P, who can get stranded.

Consider this: the primary 'fault' was with the Sprinter driver, and probably falls under Section 129, to stop for a Red light. *

Had he done so, then there would be little question about his choosing to move the vehicle, and continue to make the turn!

There is a lot to see in that video. But I also don't think that the person with the stroller paid sufficient attention to the safety aspect; and she would have been wiser to pull the stroller backwards, which would also give her a better view of pending vehicle conflicts such as almost occurred. Thankfully, she wasn't also on a cell phone ... 

* And why do I think the Sprinter driver would have been facing a red, also, even though 'our' light was now red? Because the way that traffic lights are set up, particularly at a simple intersection like this, is with a momentary pause, maybe a second, between when one street goes to red, and the other one goes to green. 

Where was this, from interest? Any chance they have a cam on the corner?

Living in Vancouver one gets more than their share of entitled and stupid pedestrians. I've lost count of the times I've stopped at a light, before a crosswalk, to make a right turn; looked left, right, left again as I'm turning... only to have somebody on a suicide mission step (or run) out in front of my vehicle. One guy on Broadway two years ago actually ran out from the sidewalk, 45 degrees approximately 6 ft from the crosswalk and pounded my car as I drove by while pointing at the walk signal.

I think it's a big mistake in North America to be putting so much of the liability on the vehicle drivers.

In developing countries, there is zero question about who's in charge.... it's the object which does the most damage and suffers the least amount in a collision. As a result, you never see self righteous pedestrians playing chicken with vehicles in Central America.

I've lost count of the times I've stopped at a light, before a crosswalk, to make a right turn; looked left, right, left again as I'm turning...

Sorry, but your procedure is all wrong. Left turns, right turns, green light, red light, whatever! Once the decision is made that it's safe to complete the turn, the driver has to be looking at his/her path of travel, both to ensure they are on track in terms of steering toward there intended position for where they'll be completing it (basic visual tracking, necessary at every turn even in the quietest residential neighbourhoods, never mind complex lane choices when you're using busier arterials) as well as being able to use their peripheral vision for conflicts in their path or pending.

If you're looking left, while turning right and actually moving, then you're endangering everyone in your path of travel, due to focusing at the wrong moment on whether some other motorist is going to hit you from the left; that should have been dealt with, already.

Sadly, we wind up endlessly having the same pointless debates about "who's to blame" in the pedestrian-vs-car wars. This accomplishes no real change, but a good deal of venting.

Instead, there is a need to consider the fact that human beings are always going to be subject to both error and competing priorities - no amount of blaming, education, or regulation will change this. Yes, we are right to expect and hope for better behaviour, but human psychology and motivations being what they always have been, and always will be, we're not going to get enough behaviour improvement to make any significant change in our outcomes.

If our intent is to preserve human life while allowing everyone to get where they need to go, we're better served by efforts to change the context of behaviour. In the case of pedestrians crossing roadways, we can change the positioning of crosswalks and sidewalks to avoid the sort of "pinch point" illustrated in the example given. We are seeing some areas moving crosswalks further away from where vehicles are initiating turns, which gives everyone a bit more time to be looking out for each other. We're also seeing mid-crossing "islands" created to give pedestrians a safer zone part way across roadways that are too wide to walk across in the nano-second usually provided under the "walk" (more like "run for your life") signal. And of course, consideration is being given to lengthening "walk" signals, to reduce the pressure on pedestrians to get into the intersection as quickly as possible.

We can also change signal timing to provide for only one type of road user at a time to occupy the intersection zone of death. The so-called "pedestrian scramble", whilst unfortunately labelled, is a timing system that allows pedestrians to move in all directions while all vehicle movement is stopped, and then stops all pedestrian movement while vehicles are in motion. Although we obviously still have trouble with people's competitive instinct rebelling against the one-at-a-time constraints, nonetheless we can realize considerable harm reduction.

Just as in the case of vehicle-to-vehicle conflict where directions of travel intersect, we also have to consider structural changes that separate the northbound traveller from the eastbound traveller. Overpasses and underpasses have a rightful place in the discussion of pedestrian movement, not just vehicle movement. Barriers that restrict movement across each other's path, either temporarily or permanently, are another measure that we ignore at the peril of all road users for similar reasons of cost and convenience, but are nonetheless necessary in many instances.

Similarly, lower-level barriers such as speed humps and elevated crosswalks are effective in slowing vehicle movement near unprotected road users, and assisting drivers to identify pedestrian crossings more easily.

On that note, of course, we are talking about bricks and mortar solutions to these problems, while the direction that traffic safety is very rapidly moving is towards technological interventions, such as automatic emergency braking coupled with pedestrian detection systems, for example. Although this stuff is taking a ridiculously long time to permeate the vehicle fleet, there's no particular reason for us to put up with the wait. Instead of yelling at each other to "behave", we could spend some of that energy demanding that available technologies be made mandatory standard equipment now, not whenever manufacturers and retailers feel like getting around to it.

Time for me and the dogs to go for a walk. In the woods, well away from cars......

I’ve noted in parts of Europe (Sweden, Holland) that vehicles and pedestrians are not allowed in an intersection at the same time.

There are “walk” control lights that mean that no motorized traffic can move anywhere throughout an intersection while pedestrians are allowed to cross.

It has always really concerned me that, when a vehicle in turning right, (and sometimes left”, he must watch for traffic coming through the intersection as well as pedestrians wanting to cross.

I like that system!

Vancouver tried that for a period of time in a few selected intersections.

Unfortunately I cannot remember how many years back it was, other than it was years ago. Can't even remember how long it lasted. Personally I thought it was a great idea, believe the main complaint was time.