Why Did the Plaintiff Cross the Road?

By Gary Wickert | November 1, 2018

Understanding Pedestrian and Crosswalk Laws in All 50 States

Every year approximately 76,000 pedestrians suffer injuries when they are struck by a moving vehicle. Beginning in 2016, America experienced a significant increase in the number of pedestrian fatalities, and in 2017 alone, there were nearly 6,000 pedestrian deaths in the U.S. Five states alone account for 43 percent of all pedestrian deaths—California, Florida, Texas, New York, and Arizona. Pedestrian deaths now make up 16 percent of the total traffic deaths in the U.S. A 2018 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) study reveals that in 2016, 5,987 pedestrians were killed on U.S. roads—an average of 16 per day. The worst states were New Mexico, Florida, South Carolina, Delaware, Arizona, Nevada, Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, and Georgia. Interestingly, nine of the ten worst states are located in the South. It is impossible to effectively handle personal injury and workers’ compensation subrogation claims without becoming familiar with the mosaic of proliferating laws which govern the liability of motorists and the duties of pedestrians when crossing the street.

Children under 13 years of age have the lowest pedestrian death rate of all ages – 4 per million. Elderly pedestrians, although struck even less frequently than children, are more likely to die after being struck. Victims over the age of 70 account for 13 percent percent of pedestrian deaths. Male pedestrians of all age groups are more commonly killed in collisions than female pedestrians. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “Pedestrian deaths increased 54 percent in urban areas, which include both cities and what most people consider suburbs. They also increased 67 percent on arterials — busy roads designed mainly to funnel vehicle traffic toward freeways – 50 percent outside of intersections, and 56 percent in the dark. Although pedestrian crashes most frequently involved cars, fatal single-vehicle crashes involving SUVs increased 81 percent, more than other type of vehicle.”

In an effort to address this growing public safety concern, state legislatures are scrambling to pass new laws which regulate and define who is at fault when a pedestrian is struck. These laws cover circumstances when a vehicle must stop or yield to a pedestrian crossing the street at an uncontrolled crosswalk—one where there is no traffic control device governing and/or directing when it is safe to cross the street. For example, a growing number of states require motorists to stop and yield to pedestrians in an uncontrolled crosswalk; an obligation many motorists have had a hard time adjusting to. In Minnesota, the law now requires a vehicle to stop when a pedestrian is in any portion of the roadway—controlled or uncontrolled. Drivers in that state must now stop for crossing pedestrians at marked crosswalks and at all intersections without crosswalks or stop lights. Although Minnesota pedestrians must not enter a crosswalk if a vehicle is approaching and it is impossible for the driver to stop, there is no defined distance that a pedestrian must abide by before entering the crosswalk. Furthermore, when a vehicle is stopped at a Minnesota intersection to allow pedestrians to cross the roadway, it is illegal for drivers of other vehicles approaching from the rear to pass the stopped vehicle.

Interestingly, at common law, the rights of pedestrians and motorists at crossings were equal and neither had a superior right over the other. Bartlett v. Melzo, 88 N.W.2d 518 (Mich. 1958). Today, however, most states treat pedestrian rights and vehicle obligations at controlled and uncontrolled crosswalks differently. Controlled crosswalks are typically striped and delineated as such; but an unmarked crosswalk could be either marked or unmarked. The language and definitions differ from state to state. In general, vehicles must yield the right-of-way to pedestrians at plainly marked crosswalks and at intersections where stop signs or flashing red signals are in place. On the other hand, pedestrians must generally yield the right-of-way to vehicles when crossing outside of a marked crosswalk or an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection. The laws do vary from state to state, however.

In New Jersey, vehicles must stop for a pedestrian within a marked crosswalk but must only yield the right-of-way to pedestrians crossing within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection. Nineteen states put the burden on vehicles to stop and yield if a pedestrian is located anywhere in the roadway. Other states, like Louisiana, require a vehicle to yield only if the pedestrian is on their half of the road, but not if they are on the other half; requiring the pedestrian to stop and wait as traffic passes. Nebraska requires yielding if the pedestrian is on the same half of the roadway or within one lane of the vehicle. Massachusetts is an example of a state that requires the vehicle to stop and yield if the pedestrian is on the same half of the roadway or within ten (10) feet of the motorist. Despite this, some states—including Hawaii, Georgia, Oregon, South Dakota, Virginia, and Washington treat controlled and uncontrolled crosswalks the same.

In general, drivers of motor vehicles must exercise reasonable care to avoid striking a pedestrian. The laws of many states impose a higher duty of care when it comes to pedestrians who are children. At the same time, a pedestrian cannot blindly walk into the roadway without exercising reasonable care and keeping a proper lookout. A pedestrian who fails to do this is guilty of contributory negligence.

A legal culture sea transformation is underway and claims and subrogation professionals must be aware of this change. The University of Minnesota recently conducted research at “high-risk” intersections in St. Paul as part of a study to track pedestrian and driver behavior. Only 31 percent of drivers yielded to the pedestrians as required by Minnesota law. Minnesota refers to it as the “Stop for Me” campaign—a public campaign to protect pedestrians and educate drivers that they must stop and let pedestrians cross, even when there isn’t a red light. From 2013 to 2017, 835 pedestrians in St. Paul were struck by vehicles. Of those, 17 died and 747 were injured. Of those hurt, 87 were children 10 years of age and under, and 100 were ages 11 to 17. In Minnesota, pedestrians are allowed to cross the street wherever they choose, so long as they (1) act reasonably to ensure their own safety, (2) follow traffic laws and rules, and (3) are not otherwise prohibited from crossing in a specific location. Minn. Stat. §§ 169 (Minnesota Statutes “Traffic Regulations” chapter). When crossing at a marked crosswalk where traffic control signals are present, pedestrians must obey the signals and may only cross the road within the marked crosswalk. Minn. Stat. § 169.21, subd. 1, 3(c). If crossing at a marked crosswalk or at an intersection without a marked crosswalk where no traffic control signals are present, both motor vehicle drivers and bicyclists must allow pedestrians already crossing the road to cross the entire road first before driving further through the intersection. Minn. Stat. § 169.21, subd. 2(a). Similarly, pedestrians must allow traffic in the roadway to pass before attempting to cross at locations without traffic signals, such as at crosswalks, intersections, and undesignated locations like the middle of the street where there is no crosswalk. Minn. Stat. § 169.21, subd. 2(a), 3(a).

Complicating matters even more are some of the more complex traffic control signs and devices which assist pedestrians in crossing the street. Pedestrians in many states are considered to be lawfully crossing the road within an intersection or crosswalk with traffic control signals when doing so according to a defined set of rules. In Minnesota, these rules are as follows according to the Public Health Law Center:

  • Where there is only one set of lights applicable to all traffic, the following rules apply:
    • Green Signal:
      • Pedestrians facing any green signal (except when the only green signal is a turn arrow) may proceed across the road within any marked or unmarked crosswalk.
      • Every driver of a vehicle must allow pedestrians to cross the road first — except, pedestrians must allow vehicles lawfully within the intersection at the time that the green signal indication is first shown to proceed before crossing.
    • Steady Yellow Signal: Pedestrians facing a circular yellow signal are notified that there is not enough time to cross the road before a red signal is shown and are prohibited from starting to cross the road.
    • Steady Red Signal: Pedestrians facing a steady red signal alone must not enter the road.
  • Whenever special pedestrian control signals with the words Walk or Don’t Walk or symbols of a walking person or upraised hand are in place, the signals or symbols indicate as follows:
    • Steady Walk signal or the symbol of a walking person:
      • A pedestrian facing either of these signals may proceed across the road in the direction of the signal, possibly in conflict with turning vehicles.
      • Every driver of a vehicle must allow pedestrians to cross before driving further — except that the pedestrian must let vehicles that are lawfully within the intersection at the time that the signal indication is first shown to pass first.
    • Don’t Walk signal or the symbol of an upraised hand (flashing or steady):
      • A pedestrian is prohibited from starting to cross the road in the direction of either signal.

BUT — Any pedestrian who has partially crossed on the Walk or walking person signal must proceed to a sidewalk or safety island while the signal is showing.

Distracted Walking Laws
Closely related to the laws regarding pedestrians and street crossing is the growing body of laws which regulate what a pedestrian can and can’t do while crossing a street. These laws are referred to as “Distracted Walking Laws”, but more creative names such as “Phones Down, Heads Up Act” have been used. The use of headphones, smartphones, or other electronic devices while crossing the road has contributed to pedestrian/vehicle accidents, injuries, and deaths. A 2018 Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) study has revealed that smartphone use, alcohol, and marijuana use has contributed to drastically-increased injuries and deaths to pedestrians. The reported number of smartphones in active use in the U.S. rose 236 percent from 2010 to 2016, said the report, which cited an increase in “cell phone-related” emergency room visits. While this might instinctively bring to mind a distracted pedestrian crossing the road without keeping a proper lookout, the rise in these pedestrian accidents is also caused in large part by distracted drivers. The report also noted that there was a 16.4 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities in the seven states that legalized recreational marijuana use between 2012 and 2016. Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable.

A growing number of municipalities across the country have criminalized the ordinary act of walking by making it illegal to walk across the street while using smartphones or wearing earphones. This movement is sweeping the nation the same way the campaign against drunk and distracted driving proliferated. Cities, towns, and villages across America are passing ordinances making it illegal to cross the street while involved in a phone call, viewing a mobile electronic device, or with both ears obstructed by personal audio equipment. While public safety is certainly a concern across the country, some of these laws border on the absurd—both in terms of enforceability and failure to reflect the realities of everyday life. A 2017 Honolulu ordinance makes it illegal to cross the street and even “look” at a cellphone, an innocent act no more distracting than looking at one’s watch and quite normal for those who rely on smartphones in place of a wristwatch.

Some people have suggested legislation making use of a device called a “textalyzer”, under development by a firm in Israel, that can scan a driver’s phone for activity like texting, Facebooking, and Snapchatting in the moments leading up to a collision. One such bill in New York proposed that anyone who refused to hand over their phone would surrender their license, much like refusal to submit to a breath test is grounds for a license suspension.

Critics of the growing number of distracted walking laws claim that these laws do not target the real public safety threat. They argue that people slow down their walking when they’re looking at electronic devices, enabling them to avoid obstacles and not walk into trouble inadvertently. They claim that you can’t legislate common sense. A report from the Office of Ontario’s Chief Coroner revealed that a mere 7 out of 95 pedestrians killed in 2010 were distracted by a cell phone or handheld device – roughly 7 percent. They argue that jaywalking is already against the law, so if someone crosses an active roadway illegally, notwithstanding the use of a handheld device, there’s already a law for that. Besides, they say, many pedestrian laws allow the pedestrian to rely on the fact that a vehicle will not violate the law and strike them when they have the right-of-way. What’s more, in only 23 percent of collisions with pedestrians was the driver found to be driving properly. They argue that the most serious cause of pedestrian accidents is driver inattention or reckless driving.

White Cane Laws
Complicating the pedestrian mosaic further is the fact many states and municipalities have enacted laws and ordinances with the objective of protecting pedestrians who are blind or visually impaired. When a pedestrian is yielding a white cane, an entire new body of laws and duties enter the picture. Each state handles the situation differently, with some states requiring that the driver yield to a white cane, some requiring that the driver come to a complete stop, some requiring only caution be used by the driver, and still others providing for no extra rights and protections to the visually-impaired. Obviously, as with distracted walking laws and ordinances, white cane laws are also part of the legal mosaic which is created when there is a pedestrian injury. The American Council of the Blind offers a chart detailing the white cane laws.

It should be remembered that individual cities and villages may also have ordinances which affect the duties and liabilities of drivers and pedestrians. Claims adjusters and subrogation professionals should not automatically assume that a pedestrian is at fault merely because he or she was struck while crossing the road. Society is changing and the burden and duty to avoid a collision is rapidly shifting to the driver of the motor vehicle.

View a chart, Pedestrian and Crosswalk Laws In All 50 States, representing an amalgamation of laws from all 50 states that regulate the relationship between and the duties of motor vehicles and pedestrians crossing the street.

image of Gary Wickert

About Gary Wickert

Gary Wickert is an insurance trial lawyer and a partner with Matthiesen, Wickert & Lehrer, S.C., and is regarded as one of the world’s leading experts on insurance subrogation. He is the author of several subrogation books and legal treatises and is a national and international speaker and lecturer on subrogation and motivational topics. He can be reached at gwickert@mwl-law.com. More from Gary Wickert

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.