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

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The outdated clause makes it hard to charge drivers under the city’s new Right of Way law, prosecutors told the Daily News, because they need to prove the pedestrian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

  • djx

    Uggh.

  • Simon Phearson

    I’m skeptical that this is a correct interpretation of the law. The provision on a “flashing don’t walk” signal seems to clearly state that a pedestrian has the right of way, under the light, to reach the nearest sidewalk or pedestrian island. That right of way is not apparently predicated, under the relevant provision, on the pedestrian’s having entered the crosswalk only with a “walk” signal.

    Interpreting the law in the way we’re being told is unavoidable results in a number of absurdities: pedestrians have the “right of way” for about seven seconds, while drivers have the full green light; two pedestrians crossing the same street at the same crosswalk, one slightly ahead of the other, may have differing rights to be there (and consequently differing protection under the law). And what happens if the lagging pedestrian jogs to catch up with the one who began crossing with the “walk” signal? If a driver runs over them both, does it make sense to hold him or her accountable only for the one who had the “walk” signal?

    This is just lazy DAs and lazy police being lazy. It’s worth noting that this requirement will effectively make even bona fide ROW charges hard to prove, unless someone is fortuitous enough to be observed entering the crosswalk on camera, with a view of the walk signal. Instead of just saying that people were “outside the crosswalk,” the NYPD will start telling the tabs: well, he didn’t have the “walk” signal. Then you don’t even have to cover for the fact that the body fell awfully close to the crosswalk…

    There’s another perverse result here, which is that – you know how the DOT’s go-to strategy for reworking dangerous intersections includes shortening crossing distances? They do that often by adding a pedestrian island in the middle of the traffic lanes. That strategy essentially means, given this interpretation, that crossing pedestrians lose the benefit of the ROW law once they cross one of those islands without a “walk” signal. Which, I think it’s fair to say, they will rarely have, given the kinds of intersections where this is done.

  • M to the I

    I think one of the problems with our ped signals in New York is that they are not split when there is a median. In most other cities that I have been, the signal for the crossing on one side of the median is distinct from the signal on the other side. For example, at Atlantic and Vanderbilt, northbound vehicles get a left turn signal to turn westbound on Atlantic. During this phase, eastbound Atlantic is stopped and there are no vehicles proceeding, yet the ped signal is red. Peds could have a headstart crossing from south to north or if they got stuck in the median crossing north to south. The same is true on Allen St where the median is substantial and may be a pedestrians destination. The ped signal is red for the crossing of the southbound lanes on Allen when only northbound traffic is proceeding. That is just wasted time that peds should be able to use to cross wide streets.

  • roguebagel

    Your post so clearly articulates the absurdities of this interpretation.

  • The rule abets laziness, but I don’t see how your reading can be supported. It says very directly you’re not supposed to enter the roadway with a flashing red hand.

    The rule is absurd and ridiculous and needs to change.

  • Reader

    The other issue here is that such a narrow interpretation of ROW also begets the NYPD’s very binary notion of responsibility being limited to a question of who had the light. It rules out other questions like a driver’s speed, when he saw the pedestrian, whether or not he was on his phone when he hit someone, etc. To be honest, there are a lot of cases where a driver should be responsible for hitting a pedestrian, even if the person hit was jaywalking. After all, don’t New Yorkers constantly see drivers speeding up and honking when there are people in the crosswalk against the light? But if all the cops ask is whether or not one party or the other had the light, then any notion of a fair investigation goes right out the window.

  • WalkingNPR

    I certainly hope cars going through yellow lights will be treated the same…

  • WalkingNPR

    Looking out the window this morning, I saw someone back the entire way through an intersection (apparently decided he/she wanted to go west instead of continuing south), nearly missing pedestrians who were proceeding–with the right of way–east-west through the crosswalk with the light. Goodness knows how the NYPD would’ve interpreted that one if the driver had hit someone–sorry, we know this driver was doing something completely boneheaded, but there’s not video evidence the pedestrian stepped off the curb before the blinking hand!

  • “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”

    Maybe they can tackle that when they’re done figuring out SBS lights

  • J

    It’s outrageous that pedestrians have to PROVE they have the right of way, but drivers are innocent until proven guilty.

    It’s like making a shooting victim prove they didn’t jump in front of a gun, while assuming the shooter wasn’t doing anything wrong.

  • It’s a city rule, you don’t need to go through Albany to change it.

  • Simon Phearson

    You’re right, it says that. But then it also says that drivers are to yield the right of way to anyone already in the intersection. How is a driver supposed to tell the difference between someone who was “already” in the intersection when the flashing “don’t walk” began, as opposed to someone who began crossing when the “don’t walk” signal began flashing?

    The answer is simple: they’re not. The drafters of Section 4-03 clearly included an instruction for pedestrians – don’t begin crossing with a “don’t walk” signal – but provided for what happens if a pedestrian is in the intersection when the “don’t walk” is flashing – they have the right of way. Nothing in that provision establishes that a pedestrian loses the “right of way” if they’ve entered the intersection against the “don’t walk” signal – they’re just guilty of violating the provision’s initial prohibition.

  • Andres Dee

    So, what happens to a person walking if they were bullied out of crossing when they had the green and the red began flashing. Did they just lose their right of way for the cycle?

  • Jesse

    every absurdity that you are pointing out in the law can be read there.

    And that’s sort of the point of this article.

    Here’s the ugly secret underlying it all: a pedestrian in the street must be granted right of way whereas a motorist in the street automatically has right of way unless some other legal circumstances take it away. So a pedestrian in the street is presumed not to have right of way unless it can be proven and the converse is true of motorists.

    And that’s the double-standard that we want to correct.

  • Mike

    New rule: if you even so much as tap somebody with your car, they get to own your car.

  • A driver who fails to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk in those circumstances can be convicted of violating other statutes — the bare minimum being the careless driving law (VTL 1146). As I understand it, a ROW conviction would be unlikely because of this city rule.

    I’m all for DAs showing some guts for once and forcing the issue before a judge. But the law, as written, is awful. Fixing it should be a winnable fight.

  • Simon Phearson

    If the meaning of a law is ambiguous – which I think is the case here – then we generally read it to avoid absurdity.

    The law contains a clear instruction to drivers that they are to yield the right of way to certain pedestrians crossing against a flashing “don’t walk” signal. The question is whether that instruction – and so the ROW – applies only to pedestrians who have previously entered the intersection with a “walk” signal. There is no way for the typical driver to be able to distinguish who those pedestrians are, particularly considering that pedestrians can cross at differing speeds. So, according to the interpretation that nearly all of the pro-pedestrians here are championing (for some reason), the law apparently limits drivers’ duties according to a distinction they can’t possibly assess, which is absurd.

    As I read the the relevant codes, the notion of the “right of way” is distinct from “lawfully” being in any particular roadway. One user may be required to yield the “right of way” even to users that are unlawfully in the roadway. As such, the “right of way” seems to be a set of rules defining who has a higher priority to proceed, in a particular circumstance, at a particular point of conflict. As such, someone must have the right of way at any particular time, and to assert that Section 4-03 gives that “right of way” to drivers whenever a pedestrian has entered against a flashing “don’t walk” signal not only makes no sense, but would make a lot of these conflicts unresolvable – essentially trapping jaywalkers in the middle of the street until all drivers have cleared it.

    Query, for instance, who has the “right of way” if a driver begins a turn during a yellow light, across a crosswalk with a pedestrian crossing against a “don’t walk” signal. The sort of reason you and others are employing would seem to say that no one does, which can’t be correct.

  • Simon Phearson

    The problem is that there are so many fights we need to be having, it makes little sense to pursue so-called “winnable fights” that are predicated upon a barely-defensible interpretation of this law that we’re already conceding out of the gate. You’re basically saying, yes, let’s all agree that this law unfairly shortchanges pedestrians – so that we can now fight back against our initial concession! Why not say, instead: no, this law doesn’t say what you’re saying it says, now do your jobs!

    How many years, and how much advocacy, will be required to get the city council to come up with some workable alternative? How many counterarguments will we have to address? There’s going to be a chorus of drivers complaining that expanding the “right of way” to include a portion of a countdown timer – presumably, this would have to be based upon a reasonable belief that one can cross in the allotted time – will result in a lot of chaos.

    And they’ll have a point. If it’s subjective like that, it’s not going to provide much protection (NYPD to tabs: he didn’t really have enough time to cross, ergo no ROW). So it seems like the best alternative is to eliminate countdowns entirely, and expand the “walk” signal instead. Of course, then you’ll get the same complaints – all of these pedestrians darting across the street against a “don’t walk” signal when cross-traffic has the green! And that starts to look more like a DOT matter, not something for the city council.

    No, no, no. This is poor legal reasoning and poor advocacy. The underlying problem here is that the DAs and NYPD don’t like the ROW law, and they’ll look for any excuse not to apply it. Changing the underlying rules in order to take away their cover isn’t going to change their interest in enforcing the law – it will just make them more blatant in their disregard. A total waste of time. We should focus attention on that basic disregard – and disrespect – for pedestrians.

  • If this is a city rule that can be re-written, we should push for some language that not only fixes it, but give pedestrians even more protection. I’m not sure what that would be but let’s go all out if/when they re-write it.

  • SteveVaccaro

    To fully appreciate the absurdity of this rule, consider a pedestrian crossing a wide road (like Atlantic) who makes it, say, one out of three lanes past the median when the light starts flashing red. The rule requires that person to turn tail and head back to the median–creating a huge risk of a collision with a turning driver who may well have assumed that there was room to turn behind the pedestrian and not expecting the sudden about-face. Of course, that pedestrian *would* have the right of way…small comfort along with broken bones (or worse).

  • D’BlahZero

    Can the signals be reprogrammed to show the white walk signal when the countdown starts? The red hand could start flashing at 5 or 10 seconds to go. Many signals seem to indicate walk for 25 second countdowns.

  • Joe R.

    Besides that, would a person really want to stand in a narrow median for one light cycle as cars zoom by on both sides at 50 or 60 mph? I know I wouldn’t. Once or twice I get stuck on a median crossing Queens Boulevard. The experience was so unpleasant I now either run across so I can make it in one light cycle, or if available use the subway to cross over instead.

  • Joe R.

    If it were up to me the law in NYC would be pedestrians in a crosswalk have the right-of-way over motor vehicles all the time, regardless of the state of the traffic cycle. While we’re at it, I would also give cyclists the same right-of-way over motor traffic but they would have to yield to crossing pedestrians. The practical result of this would be people driving 20 mph or less all the time, even when they have they green, on the fear a pedestrian or cyclist might suddenly appear in front of them.

  • Joe R.

    Honestly, I’m so sick and tired of seeing Mickey Mouse driving maneuvers like that. People drive nowadays like they’re playing a video game. Miss a turn or an exit, no problem, I’ll just back up, even if I’m on a highway. The fact nonsense like you saw is so prevalent these days speaks to the very poor level of driving training we have in this country. It also shows the general lack of responsibility people feel when driving. Unlike a video game, you can’t hit the reset button and start over if you crash.

  • Andres Dee

    What’s really needed is a minimum acceptable standard in the codebooks for a walk interval, preferably featuring an exclusive phase. Any DOT not complying should be swatted with a copy of the mutt code/black book/red book/blue book…

  • Andres Dee

    …Or you’ll finally recognize that you’ll never have first class status until you pony up some money for a car and some INshurence.

  • Andrew

    No, the rule allows the pedestrian to continue walking until reaching the end of the crosswalk or a safety island (whichever comes first).

    Not that this makes it any less absurd.

  • Andrew

    A few days ago, I was approaching a crosswalk (with the light in my favor) as a taxi driver turned right. He didn’t interfere with any pedestrians’ movements (I wasn’t at the crosswalk yet and nobody else was crossing at the time). But as soon as he finished turning, I guess he changed his mind. He shifted into reverse and backed out of the turn just as quickly as he had gone into it. Except that by this time I was behind him.

    Fortunately, I noticed him in time (good thing I looked east while crossing a westbound street) and got out of the way. But if I had been hit, would I have been able to prove that, at the moment I stepped into the crosswalk, the walking man was on?

  • Andrew

    But then it also says that drivers are to yield the right of way to anyone already in the intersection.

    Not exactly. It says that “vehicular traffic, including vehicles turning right or left, shall yield the right of way to other vehicles and to pedestrians lawfully within the intersection or an adjacent crosswalk at the time such [green] signal is exhibited.”

    A pedestrian who enters on the blinking red is not lawfully in the crosswalk, so vehicular traffic isn’t required to yield.

    Now, as a practical matter, the motorist is still required to “exercise due care to avoid colliding with any pedestrian.” But the Right of Way Law only applies if the motorist is both fails to yield and fails to exercise due care; if there was no requirement to yield in the first place (and only the requirement to exercise due care), the ROW Law can’t be applied, on a technicality.

  • snobum

    I believe NYC follows MUTCD for this. It states “the walk interval should be at least 7 seconds in length so that pedestrians will have adequate opportunity to leave the curb or shoulder before the pedestrian clearance time begins”

    A whole 7 seconds. Oh, but there’s an exception to that. “If pedestrian volumes and characteristics do not require a 7-second walk interval, walk intervals as short as 4 seconds may be used.”

  • Joe R.

    The problem here is MUTCD standards don’t recognize variations in walking speeds. The 7 second walk interval (or 4 seconds in some cases) is followed by a flashing don’t walk which generally lasts long enough for an 80-year old to cross the street. The underlying assumption of these standards is if you don’t enter the crosswalk while the walk signal is present, you won’t be able to finish crossing before you get solid red. That’s seldom true. Functionally, the purpose of MUTCD is to ensure the crosswalk is clear of pedestrians before motor vehicles get the green signal. You can just as easily have the rule “Do not start crossing unless you can clear the crosswalk before the solid don’t walk appears”. That allows people to use their own judgement. Also, with the countdown timers it’s relatively easy to determine if you need to pick up the pace or not to clear the crosswalk in time. The bottom line is we have a rule designed for the least common denominator, which is very slow walkers. Holding everyone to that rule makes little sense.

    On another note, why not use pedestrian sensors more instead of dumb, timed crossing signals? This way motor vehicles only get a red light is a pedestrian or motor vehicle or cyclist is crossing. The red only lasts for as long as it actually takes for that street user to cross, and no longer.

  • Andres Dee

    If I experience a light that does not meet the 7-second standard (a few outside NYC come to mind), do I have any recourse to fight them based on MUTCD?

  • Andrew

    I’m pretty sure that we have plenty of those 4-second intervals – at crosswalks that are among the busiest 1% in the nation.

    If there’s any city that shouldn’t be giving pedestrians the bare minimum, it’s New York.

  • Andrew

    Not only can it be done, I’ve been in cities that show the countdown for the entire walk phase. (Boston, perhaps?)

    Rather than timing the blinking red hand for an unusually slow walker (and turning the vast majority of pedestrians, who know they still have plenty of time to cross based on the countdown clock), time the blinking red hand for an unusually fast walker. Anybody who walks slower will know based on the countdown clock that there isn’t enough time to start crossing.

    Or, even better, change the law to treat blinking red as a simple warning with no immediate legal repercussions, much as a yellow light is simply a warning to motorists that the light is about to turn red.

  • EileenM57

    And can such a median truly be said to be a “safety island”? I think sometimes traffic engineers are like Humpty Dumpty — “When I choose a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.”

  • EileenM57

    I don’t think this issue is unique to New York. I live in DC and our statute is worded very similarly — peds have right of way if they begin walking on a “walk” signal and at least one police officer (a good one who isn’t trying to avoid citing drivers and who will look carefully for another citable offense if he can’t get past this technicality) has told me that they face difficulty citing a driver for violating ped right of way if the ped starts on “don’t walk.” On one level, in principle I think it’s important to keep the “ped who starts on walk has right of way till they reach a point of safety” aspect intact because I think it does provide some legal protection for the slowest of the slow who can’t make it across before the light changes. (I say in principle because of course no driver knows this. But I do delight in calling it to people’s attention, seeing their heads explode metaphorically, and dreaming of the day we have kinder juster streets that protect our most vulnerable walkers, which I hope will include me one day.)

    In doing some research, I did come across this interesting verbiage from the FHWA’s notice publishing the most recent version of the MUTCD in 2009. I think it would support the approach Mr. Vaccaro suggests taking:

    “In the NPA [Notice of Proposed Amendment], the FHWA proposed a second change in the meaning of the flashing orange UPRAISED HAND, to allow pedestrians to enter the intersection when a countdown pedestrian signal indication is shown with the flashing UPRAISED HAND if they are able to travel to the far side of the traveled way or to a median by the time the countdown display reaches zero. The FHWA proposed this change because many pedestrians walk faster than the walking speeds used to calculate the length of the pedestrian change interval; therefore, many pedestrians are easily able to begin their crossing after the flashing UPRAISED HAND and countdown period has started and complete their crossing during the displayed countdown period. In the NPA, the FHWA stated the belief that pedestrians should be permitted to make their own determination of whether or not they have sufficient time to begin and complete their crossing during the remaining pedestrian clearance time. The FHWA received comments agreeing with this proposed change from the NCUTCD, two local DOTs, a toll road authority, a local pedestrian advisory board, and a consultant. However, the FHWA received comments in opposition to this change from 4 State DOTs, 12 local DOTs, an NCUTCD member, a regional section of ITE, and a retired traffic engineer. The opponents expressed concerns that there would be two different meanings of the flashing UPRAISED HAND depending on whether or not a countdown display is present, and that this would be difficult to teach to young schoolchildren. The FHWA understands the concerns expressed about two meanings for the same indication and, as a result the FHWA does not adopt in this final rule the second proposed change in the meaning of flashing UPRAISED HAND. However, the FHWA believes that ultimately countdown pedestrian displays will be nearly ubiquitous and that the countdown information does provide pedestrians with the information they need to make individual judgments on whether to start crossing during the countdown, based on their individual walking speeds. The FHWA encourages additional research and experimentation to evaluate the feasibility of removing the flashing UPRAISED HAND indication completely as the pedestrian clearance display and instead just displaying the countdown.” See http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2009/pdf/E9-28322.pdf at pages 66820-21. “Experimentation” by state/local governments is authorized by MUTCD Section 1A.10, subject to a variety of conditions and procedures.

  • EileenM57

    One of our busiest intersections in DC, Wisconsin & M in Georgetown, has a 4-second “walk”. It’s absurd.

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