Pedestrians do not have the right of way, says Arthur Ross, and green does not mean go. The city's pedestrian-bicycle coordinator is walking me through the state statutes governing the rights and responsibilities of pedestrians and drivers when they converge at crosswalks.
As a frequent pedestrian and occasional driver, I've sometimes been confused about what to do at intersections. As a bystander who has observed inconsistent behavior by other pedestrians and drivers, I'm even more perplexed.
So I consulted Ross, who confirms that the rules are widely misunderstood - and not without reason. "Laws aren't always crystal-clear," he says. But drivers and pedestrians need to know and observe them, because ignorance and confusion at crosswalks can maim and kill.
Take that bit about pedestrians having the right of way. I'd always understood that people on foot were imbued with the divine entitlement of traffic royalty. Nope.
"You can't just step out in front of a car," says Ross. Turning to Chapter 346 of Wisconsin statutes, he reads: "At an intersection or crosswalk...the operator of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian."
There are permutations to this rule, but the statutory thrust is this: The right of way shall be granted by drivers to pedestrians entering crosswalks. Nobody possesses it outright. Rather, one party yields it to the other.
What does it mean to yield the right of way to a pedestrian? The strict statutory reading says, "[T]he operator of a vehicle is required to reduce speed, or stop if necessary, to avoid endangering, colliding with or interfering in any way with pedestrian travel."
Oops. As a pedestrian, I encounter interference almost every day. As a driver, how many times might I have interfered with pedestrians?
It's a question any driver should ask, because to hear Ross tell it, walking is the foundation on which all transportation stands. Even if you drive or bus or bike to and from work, you walk to your vehicle and it delivers you to a destination where you'll walk some more. "For a viable transit system," he explains, "you need walkability."
The most difficult part of most walking trips is crossing busy streets, Ross says. He demonstrates during several attempts to cross East Doty at South Pinckney. On one crossing, two drivers slow or stop their compacts so he can pass. During another, the driver of a van accelerates to get past the crosswalk before Ross steps into the lane. It is a close call.
"What is the practice, and what should the practice be?" Ross asks. "And are the rules sufficient? Do we need to go beyond the rules to get to community values?"
Some of the rules depend on circumstances, including the old commonplace about what we're supposed to do at green lights. "Green doesn't mean go," Ross points out. Before proceeding, you must first yield to cross-traffic that has already entered the intersection but not yet exited. "You often have to read several laws together to understand what's going on in a particular situation."
Pedestrians, too, bear responsibilities for their safety. State statutes forbid them from stepping off the curb into a crosswalk, for example, without allowing drivers sufficient time and distance to react and stop. "You have to give the driver a sporting chance," Ross says.
Framing these issues as a quality-of-life matter, Ross contends that they affect community sectors ranging from business to schools: "We want people to behave in a particular way not because they're afraid of getting a ticket but because it's the right thing to do, because that's the way we drive in Madison."
He acknowledges, however, that to approach this standard will require peer pressure, example-setting by drivers of commercial and municipal fleets, public-service campaigns, neighborhood discussion groups and other sea changes.
"When you get most people doing the right thing, enforcement can be effective," observes Ross, who bikes, drives, walks and rides the bus. At the moment, however, "I would say in general, from my perspective, I think things in Madison are getting worse." To test this, he recommends drivers try yielding to pedestrians and obeying the other rules of the road, and noting the reactions of other drivers.
We need to change the way we think as a community, he says, starting with the terminology we use. "It's not cars and pedestrians," Ross explains. "It's drivers and pedestrians."
He proposes a bottom line for both to observe: "Never compromise someone else's safety for your convenience."
Walk (and drive) this way
For an 11-minute city of Madison video overview of state laws governing pedestrian safety, and a PDF brochure regarding pedestrian and driver safety responsibilities and rights, visit http://www.cityofmadison.com/trafficEngineering/bicyclingPed.cfm and scroll down to the section headed "Safety & Education."