Pedestrian Right of Way: How to Avoid an Accident

With more cars on the road today than ever before, accidents between motor vehicles and pedestrians are sadly common. According to the US Department of Transportation National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2017, there were nearly 6,000 pedestrian fatalities, making up 16 percent of the total fatalities in motor vehicle crashes.

Here are some tips to help you as a driver avoid an accident with a pedestrian, which can carry stiff penalties, including prison time for some situations if you are found at fault in the accident. Learn how to know when a pedestrian has the right of way and when pedestrian-motor vehicle accidents are most likely to happen so that you can be extra vigilant. Also, when the shoe is on the other foot, and you are a pedestrian yourself, it’s good to know how to avoid being a victim in a car-pedestrian accident.

Pedestrian Right of Way Laws

In general, pedestrians nearly always have the right of way. (The next section will talk about when pedestrians are in the wrong.) Of course, avoiding an accident with a pedestrian regardless of who is in the right should be your primary goal. But it helps to know the rules regarding pedestrian right of way, so you can slow down and be extra cautious in these scenarios.

Traffic Lights

At traffic lights, pedestrians always have the right of way when the light is in their favor. Does that mean the moment the light turns green you can step on your accelerator and roar into the intersection? No.

Always wait for pedestrian traffic to clear the intersection, just like you would wait for cars to finish crossing during a light change. Be especially patient with older individuals on foot, disabled people, children, and people crossing with pets.

When you approach an intersection with a traffic light, never “floor it” during a yellow light in an attempt to make it through the crossing before the light turns red. Slow down in anticipation of people crossing the second the light changes.

If you are turning right on a red light, always be extra careful that everyone has crossed on foot before making your turn. Even if you think you can make the turn before a far away pedestrian reaches your lane, you may be given a traffic ticket for an unsafe turn. Technically, you should never turn right on red if there is a single pedestrian anywhere in the crosswalk, even multiple lanes away from you.

Stop Signs and Yield Signs

Stop signs and yield signs are like traffic lights but with even more ambiguity. There is often a question of who arrived at the intersection first and who has the right of way. In the case of pedestrians, always give them the right of way, even if it means waiting for a moment for them to cross.

The only exception to a pedestrian having the right of way at a stop sign or yield sign is if a police officer or crossing guard motions you through the intersection and tells pedestrians to wait.

School Zones

School zones are an area where pedestrians particularly have the right of way. Pay extra attention to traffic lights, stop signs, yield signs, and crossing guards at school zone crossings. Also, expect the speed limit to be significantly reduced in a school zone. To reduce your risk of an accident with a pedestrian in a school zone, avoid these areas during peak school traffic hours whenever possible.

Don’t forget that the stop sign used by a school bus creates a temporary school zone wherever it is used. Whether you are behind the bus or approaching it in an oncoming lane, if the bus puts out its stop sign and flashes its lights, you must stop and yield to the children disembarking. Always wait for kids to cross the road and for the bus to start up again before moving your own vehicle.

Uncontrolled Intersections

Uncontrolled intersections present even more confusion for drivers than stop signs do. An uncontrolled intersection is where two roads meet without any traffic lights or stop signs.

In this instance, the pedestrian still has the right of way. If you see a pedestrian on the periphery of an uncontrolled intersection, slow down or stop until you determine whether or not they wish to cross. At uncontrolled intersections where you know there are likely to be pedestrians, such as near a school zone, anticipate foot traffic and slow down accordingly, keeping your eyes carefully on the road.

Emergency and Road Work Scenes

Any time there are emergency workers or road workers in the vicinity, these pedestrians have the right of way. Usually, road work areas have signs warning you about impending workers. However, you may drive up unexpectedly on an accident or a car pulled over by law enforcement.

In any situation where first responders like police officers and firefighters are working, exercise extreme caution and expect pedestrian traffic in front of you. There may not be space for them to work without being in traffic lanes. If you have the opportunity to move into another lane, do so, but check your speed until you have cleared the area.

When Pedestrians Are in the Wrong

Of course, pedestrians can’t cross a road whenever they feel like it. Just because pedestrians usually have the right of way doesn’t mean they don’t also have to obey traffic laws.

Pedestrians who cross against a red traffic light with no “walk” sign and pedestrians who cross in the middle of a road instead of at a light-controlled intersection (AKA jaywalking) are typically considered not to have the right of way. Likewise, pedestrians who dart into fast-moving traffic without the protection of a light or stop sign are likely at fault.

Drivers should still yield to pedestrians whenever possible, even if they do not have the right of way. However, if you were to unavoidably hit a pedestrian with your vehicle when they did not have the right of way, you would not likely be found at fault. If you are a pedestrian in this situation, you may not have the standing to initiate a lawsuit against a driver who hits you.

How to Avoid an Accident with a Pedestrian

Regardless of who has the right of way, you want to avoid an accident with a pedestrian under any circumstances. Here are some tips for drivers to help keep everyone safe.

  • Avoid distractions when you are driving: turn down the stereo, avoid using your mobile phone, and keep kids and pets safely restrained.
  • Don’t drive over the speed limit. Expect the speed limit to be reduced as you approach intersections, town centers, school zones, and work zones.
  • Watch road signs carefully, especially stop signs, yield signs, school zones, and work zones.
  • If you drive a large vehicle, such as an SUV or a truck, know that it takes longer to slow down. Begin slowing earlier to come to a stop by the time you need to. Avoid stopping in an intersection to give pedestrians proper room.
  • Don’t accelerate at yellow lights, hoping to make it before the light turns red.
  • Be vigilant when you see joggers, skateboarders, or people wearing headphones who may be oblivious to traffic around them.
  • Allow extra time for certain people to cross the street, particularly seniors and children, as well as people with disabilities, such as people in wheelchairs.
  • Don’t hang objects from your rearview mirror or your side windows that could impede your vision of the area outside your vehicle.
  • Never turn right on red if there are pedestrians anywhere in the crosswalk, even if they aren’t near you and you think you can make the turn before they reach your lane.
  • Be extra cautious in bad weather, when the streets are slippery, and in the dark, including dusk and dawn. Statistics show that a greater number of pedestrian-involved accidents happen during this time.
  • Never drive impaired, whether from alcohol, recreational drugs, or even prescription drugs like antihistamines, sleep aids, or pain medications. Driver impairment is also statistically more likely to be a factor in all vehicle accidents, including those with pedestrians.
  • Avoid known school and work zones during peak hours when possible.
  • Don’t pass another vehicle in a crosswalk or intersection because you may not see a pedestrian nearby. Always wait until you are away from the intersection to pass.

If you are a pedestrian, follow these tips to reduce your risk of being hit by a car:

  • Make yourself visible, especially during low-light conditions. Wear a reflective vest or jacket if necessary.
  • Don’t assume traffic will yield to you. Make sure cars have fully stopped before stepping into an intersection.
  • Avoid jaywalking: don’t cross in the middle of the street between traffic lights.
  • Don’t walk while impaired.
  • If you use headphones while a pedestrian, turn down the volume. Stay alert to traffic and sounds around you.
  • If there is no sidewalk, walk on the correct side of the road, facing oncoming traffic.

Advice If You Are in an Accident with a Pedestrian

Sometimes accidents with pedestrians are unavoidable. As mentioned above, people run into moving traffic without looking or cross against the light at busy intersections where drivers are moving at speed. If you are a driver in an accident involving a pedestrian, follow this advice:

  1. Do NOT leave the scene. You may or may not be at fault, but your involvement will be compounded by running because you will have become the perpetrator in a hit-and-run accident, which is much more serious.
  2. Stop your vehicle and check on the well being of the pedestrian who was hit. In most situations, you will want to dial 911 and ask for police and ambulance assistance. Even if the victim seems fine, you want to make sure they don’t have any hidden injuries. You also want the situation documented to protect yourself should the victim take legal action in the future. If the pedestrian was not in the right of way, for example, you want a record of that. Other people on the scene can corroborate your account of what happened.
  3. Try to avoid causing further accidents. In some instances, you and the victim may need to stay put to document what transpired. However, if staying in place puts you, the victim, or others on the scene in jeopardy (such as in a busy high-speed intersection), it’s best to move to the side of the road if possible. Use your best judgment to do whatever keeps everyone safe.
  4. If the person who was hit is immobile or shouldn’t be moved due to serious injuries, ask people on the scene to assist you if they can do so safely. For example, you can ask other pedestrians to wave down traffic to go around you while you call for emergency assistance.
  5. If you should hit a pedestrian on a highway, even if the victim is severely injured or unconscious, you may need to remove them from the scene to protect both of you from being hit by traffic behind you. People driving up on your accident scene may not see you until it’s too late, especially if it’s dark. Grasp the victim under the arms and pull them to the side of the road for safety before calling for emergency help. While it’s best not to move a victim, sometimes saving their life is more important than keeping them still. Move the victim off the road and pull your vehicle to the side if you not already done so, using your hazard lights to alert others and to make your scene easy to find by emergency personnel.

If you are a pedestrian and are hit by a motor vehicle, follow the same advice as given above. Make sure law enforcement is called to the scene and ask for an ambulance to evaluate any injuries, even you think you’re okay. Sometimes shock can mask pain and hide internal injuries that should be treated immediately.

Once you are safe, get in touch with an attorney that specializes in personal injury cases and is familiar with motor vehicle accidents involving a pedestrian. At the Quirk Law Group, we work hard to make sure your injuries and losses are compensated for and that you get the personal attention you deserve to follow up on your case. Contact the Quirk Law Group today for more information if you have been a pedestrian victim of a car accident.