Tuesday, October 12, 2010

DC's Pedestrian Laws: Drivers Pay Attention

This summary of the District of Columbia's pedestrian laws (below) was published on the Palisades listserv by Erik Gaull.  It's the best and clearest explanation of what obligations drivers have to pedestrians, and vice versa.

If you're interested in knowing what changes are coming to enhance pedestrian safety, you can read the DC Department of Transportation's pedestrian safety plan. Connecticut Avenue in Northwest DC has its own pedestrian safety organization, Connecticut Avenue Pedestrian Action, which has several excellent safety initiatives.

1.  A crosswalk exists at the curbline of every intersection whether painted in the roadway or not.  In other words, if a pedestrian is in the roadway of the intersection where you would expect to see a painted crosswalk, they are in fact in a crosswalk, and you must yield the right of way.

2.  All vehicles (including police cars whizzing by) must yield the right of way to a pedestrian in any crosswalk.  This means that vehicles must stop a safe distance from the pedestrian until the pedestrian has reached the other side of the road or a channelizing island (a/k/a median strip).

3.  Pedestrians need do no more than step from the curb into the crosswalk to compel vehicles to yield.  In other words, mere presence of a pedestrian in the crosswalk (marked or unmarked) triggers the duty to stop.  However, pedestrians are not supposed to enter the crosswalk in a sudden manner that would make it impossible for a vehicle to stop to yield the right of way.  But this also does not mean that pedestrians must wait until traffic clears for them to begin to cross. Stepping into the crosswalk in a normal, deliberate manner is all the warning that is required for motorists.

4.  Vehicles are assumed to be moving at a sufficiently slow rate of speed so as to be able to stop in time for a pedestrian who has exercised entered the crosswalk in an appropriate manner.  It is not an excuse to say "I couldn't stop in time," unless the pedestrian literally ran or jumped out into the crosswalk in a sudden and reckless manner.

5.  Operators of motor vehicles are assumed to be operating with due regard for the safety of pedestrians and other motorists at all times.  This means, of course, that they are complying with posted speed limits, and posted speed limits show the maximum allowable speed for the roadway given ideal driving conditions (i.e., unobstructed sightlines, dry surface, good visibility, during the daytime). The speed limit anywhere in the District is 25 MPH when no signs are present.

6.  Pedestrians must cross at the crosswalk for any street which is bounded at both intersections by a traffic light.  In other words, for many streets, it is perfectly legal for a pedestrian to cross mid-block since one or more intersections is controlled by a stop sign (or no traffic control device at all).  When crossing mid-block, pedestrians are supposed to cross perpendicular to traffic, not at an oblique angle, and they are required to cross in a manner that does not interfere with the flow of traffic (i.e., when crossing mid-block, pedestrians must yield the right of way to vehicles).

7. If you do encounter police cars failing to yield the right of way to a pedestrian, you should report the occurrence to the Second District Commander's Office at 202-713-7300 (assuming that it occurred in the Second District).  Be prepared to give the vehicle number (either license plate or the number painted on the side/rear of the car) and the time, date, and place of occurrence.

And some questions and answers:

Q: If a pedestrian is in the crosswalk at an intersection with a traffic signal and that signal for oncoming traffic is green (which means the do not cross signal for pedestrians is flashing) is traffic required to stop and let the pedestrian cross?

A: No.  Pedestrians crossing at an signalized intersection must obey the traffic signal.  In this case, crossing against the green means the pedestrian is in violation of the Traffic Code (and subject to a ticket), and the pedestrian does NOT have the right of way.

Q: Can you explore "channelizing island" a little more? In particular, what, if anything, must an outbound driver do if a pedestrian steps off the curb on the inbound side?

A: "Channelizing island" is the language used in Title 18 of the D.C. Code (the D.C. Traffic Code) for what most people know as a median strip. Where a median strip is present, it should be treated as two separate roadways.  In otherwords, if a pedestrian is crossing from the Safeway side of MacArthur Blvd, for example, cars heading inbound do not need to stop until the pedestrian steps from the median strip into the inbound roadway. Similarly, once the pedestrian makes it to the median strip from the side of the roadway, cars on that side of the roadway are free to continue on. (Interestingly, motorists on the opposite side of a channelized roadway from a school bus stopped with its red lights on are not required to stop for the school bus. Common sense, however, dictates that it is not a bad idea to stop, even though not legally burdened to do so, as some kids have been known --upon occasion-- not to listen to their parents warnings to "look both ways.")


  1. This is a good and helpful summary generally, but a few of comments:

    1. There is a provision in the DC statutes (DC Code 7-1004) that seems to be overlooked by everyone, including DDOT and MPD. It says: "The driver of a vehicle in the District of Columbia approaching a blind pedestrian who is carrying a cane predominantly white or metallic in color (with or without a red tip) or a deaf pedestrian, either of whom is using a dog guide shall take all necessary precautions to avoid injury to such blind or deaf pedestrian, and any driver who fails to take such precautions shall be liable in damages for any injury caused such pedestrian." So, blind or deaf peds who meet this description *always* have the right of way, regardless of whether they are in a crosswalk. And any time a driver is approaching someone with a cane or dog, they had better be going slowly enough to be able to figure out whether the person is blind or deaf. The merits of this provision could be debated, but it is what it is and it hasn't been repealed.

    2. If I'm not mistaken, the DC Traffic Code mentioned in the discussion of "channelizing islands" is part of the DC Code of Municipal Regulations. The DC statute on pedestrian right of way uses the term "safety island," not "channelizing island" (see DC Code 50-2201.28(b)): "A pedestrian who has begun crossing on the "WALK" signal shall be given the right-of-way by the driver of any vehicle to continue to the opposite sidewalk or safety island, whichever is nearest." I would argue that any "channelizing island" that isn't "safe" (for example, the piece of concrete driven over by Chamica Adams in Adams Morgan when she killed one ped and injured another) doesn't meet the requirements of the statute and, therefore, peds retain their right of way across the entire intersection (and timing of signals that forces peds to stand on an unsafe channelizing island is beyond DDOT's authority).

    3. The first Q&A is a bit confusing. The answer seems to imply that peds shouldn't be in a crosswalk if the "don't walk" signal is flashing. But that isn't necessarily true. Under DC Code 50-2201.28(b) (quoted in my second comment), a ped who starts crossing with a walk signal has the right of way until they get to the other side or to a safety island. It doesn't matter whether the signal starts flashing "don't walk" -- in fact, it doesn't matter whether the signal goes to a steady "don't walk" -- they still have the right of way.

  2. Can you please give the DC code citation that you are relying upon for this post? I am particularly interested in the cite where you claim "Pedestrians crossing at an signalized intersection must obey the traffic signal. In this case, crossing against the green means the pedestrian is in violation of the Traffic Code (and subject to a ticket), and the pedestrian does NOT have the right of way." Thanks!

  3. Who can I complain to if drivers regularly violate pedestrians rights at a particular intersection that I need to cross each morning to catch a bus?

  4. Call your local police station (not 911) and ask for stepped-up enforcement at this intersection. Another good way to bring attention to this problem is to post about it on the police community listserv for your district. Here's a link to the MPD website that lists all the police stations and their listservs:
    http://mpdc.dc.gov/mpdc/cwp/view,a,1242,q,565764.asp. If you are in Cleveland Park or vicinity, you are in the Second District and the police listserv is http://groups.yahoo.com/group/MPD-2D/

  5. Important to note. If struck by a govt vehicle while legally crossing in crosswalk, you will be issued a jay walking citation while laying in your hospital bed.

  6. Here's my question: on M Street SW/Maine SW near L'Enfant Promenade:
    When people are crossing M/Maine near the overpass, according to paragraph 6, this is legal and they must yield. However, if traffic is already stopped due to the light and the pedestrian has begun weaving his/her way through traffic, then traffic begins to move, should the vehicles in traffic remain until the pedestrian clears the lane or proceed with traffic? Said pedestrian called me a very rude word today for attempting to allow him safe passage. Please advise.

  7. What legal recourses do pedestrians have if a driver nearly hits them (stops within inches of them) while the pedestrian has the right of way? I have little time to respond other than an inappropriate gesture or word. What I would like to do is pummel the car with whatever I have in hand. If I call police to report a specific driver/license, can the driver be charged with a crime?

  8. Went down to the Tidal Basin to see the booms this afternoon and was shocked at the universal lack of regard for the pedestrian crosswalks. Every discription of vehicle from tour buses to touring cars proceeded to drive through crowds of pedestrians who had waited patiently on the curb for their 30 seconds to make it to the other side. Not 30 seconds to have the right of way to safely cross the street, but instead to battle their way through traffic which seemed to feel that it was enough reduce their speed from ramming to proding speed as though we were all cattle they were herding with their vehicles. There were pedestrians there from all over the country and the world this week, I am sure most of them expecting to cross the street with the walk signal, not to be pushed out of the way or blocked by vehicles in the cross walks. The entire time I was there I saw only one policeman, and he did not appear to notice a problem with this arrangement.