De Blasio Hasn’t Done It, So Tish James Intros Bill to Legalize Walking

A bill from Public Advocate Tish James would clean up outdated city traffic rules that NYPD and district attorneys say are an obstacle to applying the Right of Way Law.

Public Advocate Tish James
Public Advocate Tish James

Under the current rules, adopted before the existence of pedestrian countdown clocks, people who enter a crosswalk when the signal is flashing the “don’t walk” symbol do not have the right of way. At many crossings, DOT programs signals so the flashing hand and countdown timer appear after just a few seconds, taking up most of the walk phase.

In practice, this means those who step off the curb immediately after getting a walk signal would be the only people who could cross the street with the protection of the law. And people walking across a wide street, like Atlantic Avenue, would have to stop and wait in the median for the next light cycle to begin, even if they have time to get to the sidewalk before the countdown expires, or else lose the right of way to oncoming motorists.

“Too many innocent New Yorkers are dying crossing our city streets,” said James, according to the Daily News. “If a pedestrian enters the crosswalk after the hand starts flashing or the countdown begins, the driver can’t be held liable. It’s an outdated law.”

The Right of Way Law, also known as Section 19-190, took effect in August 2014. It was intended to be the legislative centerpiece of Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative, but police and prosecutors have used it only a handful of times.

“DAs and NYPD have used this little-known provision of law to justify failing to bring a Right of Way charge against a turning driver who strikes a pedestrian in the crosswalk,” said attorney Steve Vaccaro in an email to Streetsblog. “The de Blasio administration is aware of this problem, and DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg could rewrite Section 4-03(c)(2) today if she wanted. It is the administration’s inaction that makes this legislation necessary.”

James will introduce the bill today.

  • This is such a damning indictment of de Blasio’s alleged Vision Zero campaign. That it was left up to the Public Advocate (who could be a primary challenger in 2017) to correct an oversight that was (a) reported months ago and (b) easily fixable just shows how out of touch de Blasio and his team are with the culture and policy required to move forward with a real Vision Zero plan.

  • bolwerk

    I wish someone would take action against the victimless crime of jaywalking.

  • deBlasio’sNewYork

    Best. Public. Advocate. Ever.

  • Frank Dell

    BdB is rebranding Vision Zero. From now on it will be known as the simply elegant Zero!®.

  • Reader

    I wonder if the mayor or anyone working for him understands how popular he’d be if he actually did something about all of these innocent people who keep dying. Perhaps they prefer coddling NYC’s driving minority… who aren’t voting for him anyway.

  • BrandonWC
  • Jonathan R

    I wouldn’t look at this issue through the lens of popularity. Even if nobody cared it would still be the right thing to do to save the lives of innocent people.

  • Jeff

    “This legislation would provide the right of way to pedestrians crossing from a median when a numerical countdown clock has already begun to count down.”

    If I’m understanding this correctly, the bill doesn’t go nearly far enough. In fact it really only addresses a handful of cases. They can still legally kill you if you cross a street that doesn’t have a countdown clock, or if you step off of the sidewalk (not median) when the countdown clock begins.

  • Reader

    Well, he’s not doing it now, so perhaps he needs more than just the moral argument. We’d all like the fact that innocent people are being killed to be reason enough, but that’s apparently not making it happen.

  • BrandonWC

    It’s not quite that bad. NYC Traffic Rule 4-04(d) already states, “Notwithstanding other provisions of these rules, the operator of a vehicle shall exercise due care to avoid colliding with any pedestrian.” So, if a pedestrian is jaywalking, they don’t have the right of way, but a driver still needs to exercise due care to avoid hitting them. If a driver fails to exercise due car and hits them, they have still broken the law, even if they have not broken the right-of-way law.

    Also by my reading of the bill, a pedestrian who starts crossing during the countdown clock does have the right of way, but only until the clock hits zero: “Pedestrians
    shall have the right of way for the duration of the flashing cycle and
    vehicular traffic shall yield the right of way to all such pedestrians
    for as long as the signal remains flashing.”

  • Thank you Tish James. One of the most reliable Vision Zero supporters in the elected officials ranks.

  • Simon Phearson

    I think there is certainly room to interpret the law as applied to countdown clocks as you’ve suggested, and I think personally that’s the correct way to do it. However, the DAs and police have stated that’s not how they’re interpreting it, so that’s why we need legislation.

  • Simon Phearson

    The problem is that BdB is a carhead himself. Some time ago he was asked on his favorite places to drive, and he blithely admitted that he loved driving down the more high-way like avenues on the west side. No apparent awareness of how that kind of attitude flies in the face of any Vision Zerio goal.

  • Inaction is pretty much the defining feature of De Blasio.

  • Komanoff

    Another Brad Aaron home-run headline!

  • “The de Blasio administration is aware of this problem, and DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg could rewrite Section 4-03(c)(2) today if she wanted.”

    This is what I truly don’t understand about NYC’s version of Vision Zero. I get that the politics of changing streets is complicated and that if you quickly put bike lanes or pedestrian plazas everywhere you run the risk of pissing off a lot of NIMBYs. Playing it safe here and there so as to not jeopardize long-term Vision Zero goals is not necessarily a bad strategy.

    But shouldn’t a careful, line-by-line examination of the city’s traffic laws have been one of the FIRST things this administration did under Vision Zero? Wasn’t one of Trottenberg’s big strengths policy? Why didn’t this happen earlier?

    I’m very grateful that Tish James took the initiative here to make this common-sense change, but it does make me wonder what other laws the city could be changing today – with no cost to drivers! – in order to make people safer.

  • Geck

    How about:
    “Regardless of when a pedestrian enters the crosswalk, a
    pedestrian in the crosswalk maintains the right-of-way until the signal turns to a solid “Don’t Walk”, Red Hand or Standing Figure.”

  • urbanresidue

    Another one that should be changed is the law that not only denies pedestrians the right-of-way at t-intersections, but actually makes it illegal to cross there!
    http://urbanresidue.blogspot.com/2014/06/legally-blocking-crosswalk.html

  • Matthias

    This is great, and something I didn’t realize (although I may have read about it and forgotten). I was under the impression that NY state law required yielding to any pedestrian in a crosswalk, even if that person was technically not supposed to be there. It’s outrageous just how legal it still is to kill someone with a motor vehicle.

  • Alex

    <3 her!

  • ahwr

    2. Flashing don’t walk, red hand symbol or red standing figure. Pedestrians facing such signal are advised that there may be insufficient time to cross the roadway. Pedestrians already in the roadway shall proceed to the nearest safety island or sidewalk. Pedestrians shall have the right of way for the duration of the flashing cycle and vehicular traffic shall yield the right of way to all such pedestrians for as long as the signal remains flashing. Where a pedestrian countdown signal is counting down, a pedestrian who has reached a safety island may continue to cross the roadway to the nearest sidewalk, as long as the pedestrian reaches such sidewalk before the pedestrian countdown signal is finished counting down.

    http://legistar.council.nyc.gov/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=2513767&GUID=A9FE4C8E-FFBC-46D5-B03B-B27234A248A5

  • Miles Bader

    with no cost to drivers!

    Not quite …. They’d lose their “right” to kill to kill with impunity…. ><

  • sbauman

    The problem is with the FHWA’s MUTCD. Here’s a tidbit from their FAQ:

    Q: The 2009 MUTCD now requires pedestrian countdown signals to be used except when the pedestrian change interval is 7 seconds or less. However, it only allows the pedestrian countdown to be displayed during the pedestrian change interval (flashing orange upraised hand symbol). Why can’t it be displayed during the Walk (white walking person symbol) interval?

    A: The MUTCD specifies that the countdown is not to start until the start of the flashing orange hand. This is because in vehicle-actuated systems that use the “rest in walk” feature with a variable-duration vehicular green phase, it is not feasible to display a countdown during the Walk interval. While the vehicular phase is either “resting” (with no vehicles detected on conflicting phases) or being extended by approaching vehicles, the parallel concurrent pedestrian phase remains in Walk. In the absence of a conflicting call, the Walk remains on indefinitely. It is only after a conflicting phase call is detected that the pedestrian change interval (flashing orange hand) begins timing. With this “rest-in-walk” operation, it is not feasible to count down the walk interval. Even though some jurisdictions do not use “rest in walk” mode, and some jurisdictions might have virtually all pretimed signals, it would be confusing to pedestrians if they encountered different countdown operations at different intersections, within the same jurisdiction or as they travel from one jurisdiction to another. The common denominator workable with all signals, regardless of actuated or pretimed, is to count down only the pedestrian change interval.

    This pretty much negates any value of the count down timer to a pedestrian.

  • Drivin’ Here!

    Tish James is clearly in the pocket of the pedestrian lobby. I’ll bet she’s supported by a super PAC of corporations in the footwear industry like Nike, DSW, and Zappo’s.

  • BBnet3000

    Washington DC doesn’t follow this and actually does start the timer at the same time as the Walk signal. I definitely prefer it that way.

  • Andrew

    Motorists are required to exercise due care to avoid colliding with a pedestrian, even if the pedestrian is in the wrong. So, no, it’s not legal to kill someone with a motor vehicle, even a pedestrian who dares to step off the curb on the blinking red.

  • Andrew

    Agreed completely. While I admire Tish James for her efforts, and I suppose this is marginally better than nothing, this bill only helps with the median problem. Even if this passes, it will still be technically illegal to enter the crosswalk from the sidewalk with the blinking red, even if the countdown clock is showing 20 and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that 15 seconds is more than enough for me to get across (because, like the vast majority of New Yorkers, I walk faster than 3.5 feet per second). And since I’m technically breaking the law (although harming no one in the process), if a driver swings around the corner and hits me, he can’t be charged with failure to yield, since he wasn’t required to yield to me, only to exercise due care to avoid colliding with me – and since he didn’t fail to yield, the Right of Way Law doesn’t apply.

    Moreover, even if I actually entered 100% legally (on white) and am killed or temporarily incapacitated by a driver who failed to yield, it’s unlikely that the police would have any way of knowing whether I entered on white or on blinking red (well, short of finding surveillance video or reliable witnesses, but that takes a bit of effort), so they can’t charge the driver either, out of doubt.

    Change the law to allow crossing on white or blinking red – or, better yet, change the MUTCD to drop the blinking red entirely at locations with countdown clocks, where it is entirely superfluous.

  • Andrew

    Pedestrians already in the roadway shall proceed to the nearest safety island or sidewalk.

    Nearest? Not next? So if the nearest safety island or sidewalk is behind me, I have to turn around and go back the way I came? That’s absurd. That means that any slow pedestrian who can’t make it halfway across before the blinking red starts (only 4-7 seconds in many cases) cannot legally cross the street.

  • Andrew

    The requirement to exercise due care is insufficient for an application of the Right of Way Law – the ROW Law requires both violation of due care and failure to yield. So, unfortunately, this isn’t enough.

  • fdtutf

    a pedestrian who has reached a safety island may continue to cross the roadway to the nearest sidewalk,

    Emphasis added. I understand your objection, but I would say that the bolded language makes it unreasonable to interpret the text to mean that a pedestrian would have to reverse course.

  • fdtutf

    All-powerful pedestrian lobby, ITYM.

  • Matthias

    I should think so. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be treated as an illegal action.

  • It has nothing to do with being a car person. Regardless of political or social leanings, I have yet to meet a New Yorker in recent weeks who hasn’t concluded that de Blasio is a lazy politician, an inept manager who is in way over his head, and is dis-engaged in any aspect and administration or policy. Aside from the early victory of universal pre-K, what has this empty suit done? Luckily his deputy mayors and directors – the ones who do the real work – are more than competent. Otherwise I would really be worried.

  • Andrew

    If you attempt to determine the law from what the police enforce, you’re going to end up with a very warped sense of the law.

  • Drivin’ Here!

    Clearly. The walk all over us.

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