Monday, November 19, 2012

Crosswalk Safety: Part 1: When Everyone's Responsible, No-One's Responsible

Crosswalk safety has been back in the news  recently for a couple of reasons.  First, the last year in Halifax has seen a number of accidents involving pedestrians that have resulted in serious injury and even death.  A few examples include:
The second reason crosswalk safety has been in the news is the recent decision by the Traffic Authority to remove a number of marked crosswalks in the HRM.  (I will address this in more detail in my next blog post.)

Although the two are not directly connected, they do seem to illustrate a larger disconnect between decisions regarding crosswalks and the on-the-ground reality that drivers and pedestrians are facing.  We are repeatedly told that crosswalk safety is everyone's responsibility: drivers, pedestrians and all users of the road alike.  Yet at the end of the day, who is really responsible?

What is a crosswalk?

A crosswalk is defined in section 2(h) of the Motor Vehicle Act (the "MVA") as: "that portion of a roadway ordinarily included within the prolongation or connection of curb lines and property lines at intersections or any other portion of a roadway clearly indicated for pedestrian crossing by lines or other markings on the surface".  In other words, crosswalks can be marked or unmarked.  And since most intersections in HRM have some gap between curb and property lines, and its not possible to tell where there is one, it is safe to assume that basically every intersection is a crosswalk whether it is marked or not.  

An intersection is anyplace where two roads (be they highways, alleys, or anything in between) join each other at an angle, whether or not one highway crosses the other.   So this applies at T-junctions as well as four (or more) way intersections.

Who has to stop for whom at crosswalks?

The MVA has a number of rules around crosswalks, including at intersections with traffic signals (see s. 93).  Section 125 of the MVA deals with intersections where there are no traffic signals, and states "the driver of a vehicle shall yield the right of way to a pedestrian lawfully within a crosswalk or stopped facing a crosswalk".  In other words, as a driver, you are not only expected to stop for pedestrians already in a crosswalk, but also where a pedestrian is stopped and waiting to cross.  Remember, that responsibility applies whether at a marked crosswalk, or at any intersection without signals.

This section of the MVA goes on to place some responsibility on pedestrians as well, stating that "A pedestrian shall not leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle that is so closely approaching that it is impractical for the driver of the vehicle to stop."  So as a pedestrian, while cars should be stopping for you at crosswalks, that doesn't mean you should be running out in front of them.  The section goes on to say that at crosswalks with pedestrian beacons, the pedestrian shall not leave the curb until the beacon is activated, and that a pedestrian crossing a road other than in a crosswalk has to yield to vehicles.  The Act also provides that none of the above relieves either drivers or pedestrians from exercising "due care".  

What are the penalties?

Failure to obey this section of the MVA can have very serious consequences for both drivers and pedestrians, including a fine of $687.41 on conviction.  Of course failure to obey these laws often results in serious injury or death for the pedestrian, regardless of who is at fault.  As such, it is incumbent on both pedestrians and drivers to be extremely careful at crosswalks, whether marked or unmarked.  

So what's the problem?

In spite of the penalties and the obviously serious consequences, the number of serious accidents above would suggest that many Haligonians (pedestrians and drivers alike) are not taking crosswalk safety seriously enough.  

I use many crosswalks daily, and while most drivers are respectful of marked crosswalks, more days than not I see someone ignore a marked crosswalk altogether.  Most of the accidents described above took place at marked crosswalks.  Further, most drivers seem to be completely unfamiliar with the obligation to stop at an unmarked crosswalk.  Not infrequently, I also see pedestrians entering crosswalks in an unsafe manner.  

Better public education is needed to clarify the rules of crosswalks.  In particular, people need to be made clear on the fact that every intersection is a crosswalk, and that drivers do need to yield to pedestrians, whether they are in the road, or waiting to cross.  However, pedestrians need to be reminded that having the right of way does not mean they should enter the road in an unsafe manner, and they should not be doing so where it is impractical for a driver to stop.

One could also argue that stiffer penalties might be needed.  While a $650 ticket seems like a hefty price for a moment's inattention, it remains a relatively small price compared to a human life, which is often the cost of inattention.

However, laws are only effective if enforced, and I think there has been a lack of attention to enforcement of crosswalk rules.   We should not have to wait for someone to get hit in order for someone to be ticketed, and if someone is hit, other charges beyond failure to yield should be seriously considered.  At the end of the day, clear rules, properly and consistently enforced, are the only way to make the roads safe for all users.

(In my next post, I will talk about the government's role in crosswalk safety, and in particular, the recent decision by the traffic authority to remove several crosswalks in the HRM.)

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