Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Walking With One Foot in the Grave


While no surprise, a recent Globe column reinforced pedestrians' fantasy that they always have right of way -- jaywalking, in a crosswalk or otherwise. They don't, not in reality and not in law.

The piece in the series by Peter Demarco was in the 8/6/6 Globe under the head Punishable by a fine of $1. Unfortunately, it requires payment or subscription to see now.

The worst misstatement in it is, "The bad news for drivers, of course, is that pedestrians maintain the right of way even when they walk against the light or dash anywhere across an open road."

Honk. Wrong.

We see the attitude often, particularly in cities here. Pedestrians amble against the lights, between crosswalks, in the road with their backs to traffic (often wearing their suicidal Ninja style dark clothes), between parked cars, and at signs forbidding crossing.

These same bozos are wont to say with great conviction that they have the right of way. Yet, if you surveyed rural, suburban, urban and state cops, you'd probably find similar misconceptions and numerous contradictory absolutes.

That is kind of understandable. The laws cut pretty thinly. In addition, we differ from many states in providing some absolute rights of way to pedestrians. In many places, drivers are supposed to watch for pedestrians, but the walkers do not have the right of way. Legally -- both criminally and civilly -- that is a very important distinction.

Here, the general laws of Massachusetts cover pedestrians in numerous sections. While not contradictory, there are important differences and nuances. Key among them:
  • Real right of way (Chapter 89, Section 11). Pedestrians (at least in law) rule in marked crosswalks without an active traffic control signal. Even here, Demarco fails to note the many exceptions. They aren't covered if they are crossing against the signal, nor if they are not within 10 feet (a narrow lane width) of the oncoming vehicles when they start to sprint into the roadway. For prosecution, insurance and civil action, a pedestrian in a marked crosswalk with no crossing light or a marked crosswalk with a light showing WALK is gold. Of course, if the driver disobeys, the pedestrian is still crumbled or dead, but hey, the walker had the right of way.
  • Kind-of right of way (Chapter 90, Section 14 and Section 14a). Far tricker is jaywalking. Pedestrian dreaming aside, this is why drivers who mow down jaywalkers seldom get a citation. The laws require that drivers slow down and if necessary, stop, when they see the pedestrian walking on a road or where there is no crosswalk. So, here not only does the pedestrian not have a right of way, but it is left to the drivers' good graces that 1) they see the scofflaws, and 2) they yield. Criminally and civilly, those are huge. Prosecutions and suits are not won on such grounds. The exception is for blind pedestrians with a marked cane. That's kind of a portable crosswalk. They have right of way.
I must be paranoid and well as a stickler on such distinctions. I taught my kids to use the crosswalk and not to trust the drivers to know and obey the laws.

What is that cliché about being right, dead right? Reinforcing the idea to pedestrians that they always have the right of way might suggest a variation on the New Hampshire motto, as in Walk Free and Die Young.

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