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The NYC Traffic Rule That’s Completely at Odds With How People Walk

11:48 AM EDT on June 16, 2015

To strictly follow Section 4-03 of the Rules of the City of New York, people would have to wait in the median for a full light cycle to cross streets like Atlantic Avenue, even when the countdown clock shows plenty of time to spare. Image: Google Maps

In some cases, New York City drivers may be getting away with harming people because city traffic rules say pedestrians shouldn't step off the curb as soon as the walk signal turns into a flashing hand.

The Daily News reports that in these cases, city prosecutors say a New York City traffic statute undercuts their ability to apply the new Right of Way Law, which made it a misdemeanor for a driver to injure or kill a person who is walking or biking with the right of way:

The statute -- written decades before the creation of crosswalk countdown clocks -- bars pedestrians from starting across a street or continuing through a safety island, on a flashing upraised hand or "DON'T WALK" signal.

Once they do, they’ve lost their right of way.

The outdated clause makes it hard to charge drivers under the city’s new Right of Way law, prosecutors told the Daily News, because they need to prove the pedestrian started crossing when the signal read "WALK."

"It is my understanding after consultation with the police and other district attorneys’ offices that the numerical countdown is the equivalent of the flashing hand," Brooklyn vehicular crimes chief Craig Esswein told the Daily News.

DOT has been implementing countdown clocks for the last few years to help people assess whether they will be able to reach the opposite sidewalk before cross traffic gets a green light. They tend to be used for longer crossings, and at a lot of these locations, most of the cycle is taken up by the countdown phase.

A literal interpretation of the law is at odds with what most New Yorkers would consider to be their rights as pedestrians. At the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Vanderbilt Avenue in Brooklyn, for instance, the white "Walk" signal doesn't last long enough for many people to reach the median, while the countdown phase lasts close to half a minute. Obeying the letter of the law, people would get to the median and then wait an entire light cycle before proceeding.

Attorney Steve Vaccaro said section 4-03 of the Rules of the City of New York puts pedestrians at a distinct disadvantage. "Motorists and bicyclists are permitted to enter the intersection on a yellow and retain their right of way until exiting the intersection," he said in an email to Streetsblog. "It makes no sense to require a pedestrian who lawfully begins crossing an intersection to wait for an entire additional cycle at the median, just because the countdown clock on the corner flashes '30 seconds' as the person crosses the median."

The subsection related to pedestrian signals states:

(2) Flashing DON'T WALK, red hand symbol or red standing figure. Pedestrians facing such signal are warned that there is insufficient time to cross the roadway and no pedestrian shall enter or cross the roadway. Pedestrians already in the roadway shall proceed to the nearest safety island or sidewalk. Vehicular traffic shall yield the right of way to such pedestrians.

Rewriting city rules to grant pedestrians the right of way in the crosswalk as long as the signal is not a steady red hand would be a common-sense fix, Vaccaro said.

If prosecutors feel the current statute is an obstacle to enforcing the Right of Way Law, Esswein's boss Ken Thompson and other city DAs should push to get the law changed. In the meantime, DOT can also lengthen walk signal phases and give people adequate time to cross the street.

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