NYPD and DOT Back Bill to Expand Right of Way for Pedestrians

Legislation proposed by Public Advocate Letitia James would ensure that pedestrians who enter during the "Pedestrian Change Interval" have the right of way against turning vehicles. Image: DOT
Intro 997 would ensure that pedestrians who enter a crosswalk during the flashing “Pedestrian Change Interval” have the right of way under New York City law. Image: DOT

NYPD and DOT both support a bill to give pedestrians more legal protection under the city’s Right of Way Law.

The Right of Way Law took effect in August 2014 and made it a misdemeanor to hit a pedestrian or cyclist who has the right of way. But district attorneys and the police department often decline to bring charges under the law, citing a traffic rule that pedestrians who enter the crosswalk once the “Don’t Walk” warning begins to flash do not have the right of way. Compounding the problem, the flashing phase has become longer and the steady “Walk” phase has become shorter at many intersections where the city has installed countdown clocks.

Last fall, Public Advocate Letitia James sponsored Intro 997 to remedy the situation by extending the right of way to everyone in the crosswalk during both the steady “Walk” phase and the flashing phase.

In testimony today to the City Council transportation committee, James called the current rules a “fatal flaw” and “counterintuitive.” She argued that Intro 997 would bring the law in line with the standard practice of most New Yorkers. “At a time when our city is so rightfully concerned about addressing these avoidable deaths and injuries, fixing this problem seems like an obvious and important way to make meaningful progress,” James said.

DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo and Inspector Dennis Fulton of the NYPD Transportation Bureau expressed support for the bill, which Fulton said has “been the subject of robust discussions” between the James’s office, the City Council and the relevant city agencies. Russo told the committee that the bill would “align the law with the acknowledged reality on our streets and our concern for pedestrians’ safety.”

Russo described a hypothetical in which two pedestrians are crossing the street. What if a slower person started walking at the beginning of the crossing phase while a faster-paced walker entered once the flashing “Don’t Walk” signal began, and they were hit simultaneously by a driver? “A driver who approaches the intersection to turn left sees two pedestrians in the exact same location in the crosswalk,” Russo said. “Under current law, one pedestrian has the right of way while the other does not.”

Russo opposed other pedestrian safety legislation on the table. Intro. 912 would establish a “curb extensions program” within DOT mandating the installation of five curb extensions per borough each year at high-priority locations.

Russo argued that the legislation would limit DOT’s flexibility to use all the safety treatments at its disposal. “Curb extensions are just one tool among many,” he said. “Curb extensions may not address the specific issues contributing to crashes at a particular location, and they are rarely the most cost- or time-effective option due to the complexity of our underground infrastructure.”

Advocates argued that while curb extensions are indeed one of many possible pedestrian safety treatments, the legal mandate would still be helpful. Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White said curb extensions could be done with low-cost materials like paint and flexible posts, avoiding the time and expense of digging up a street corner. “It’s all of the above, it’s not either-or in the era of Vision Zero,”  he said. “[Curb extensions] don’t have to be capital-intensive.”

  • I my neck of the woods, there are lights that are even worse than this. In this diagram, the yellow light phase is shown to begin the moment the hand goes to solid. Many lights in my region stay green for cars long after the countdown ends and the hand goes solid. Many are 3-5 seconds, but I’ve measured one at 35 seconds. 35 seconds of hands in all directions. Its the most obvious F*** you to pedestrians I think I’ve seen to date.

  • greenlake101

    This is ostensibly good, but an expanded law will do nothing if the NYPD refuses to enforce even the current one.

  • Joe R.

    Will this bill also make it legal to start crossing if the don’t walk signal is flashing? That graphic vividly illustrates why this is needed besides protection under the right-of-way law. Under present law, you only have a window of 12 seconds out of 80 to legally start crossing. Or put another way, 85% of the time you’re legally forced to wait to cross, even if you can physically get across before cross traffic gets a green light. It should be legal to cross any time you can do so without interfering with cross traffic. That even includes times when you have a steady don’t walk.

  • new yorker

    Good work by Tish James to support and push this bill. It’s great to see someone in city actually work toward Vision Zero.

  • rao

    The flashing “don’t-walk” signal has always been counterintuitive. Think of the scene in Rain Man where Dustin Hoffman stops in the middle of the street when the don’t walk signal starts flashing red.

    In some cities abroad, the “flashing” phase shows a flashing walk signal and not a flashing hand. It’s a lot more intuitive and makes it clear that pedestrians do have the right-of-way during that phase. I’ve never seen that anywhere in the US, though, so I imagine it must be contrary to some manual.

  • Joe R.

    I did that when I was a kid. At the time I took all rules 100% literally. I actually had teachers concerned that I never talked to other kids but I took the rule “no talking in class” absolutely. I guess my logic was if you’re going to have a rule, then there are no exceptions to that rule. If there are exceptions, then they should explicitly be written into the rule. The funny thing about this is at home I almost never listened to my parents but elsewhere I pretty much took authority literally and absolutely. It took me a while to get past that. Nowadays I pretty much despise authority in any form.

  • Andres Dee

    In many parts of the country that I’ve visited, the solid “walk” is literally a second or less. And drivers still jump ahead and bully people crossing. How is this allowed? Is this in the Mutt Code?

  • Andrew

    The image is showing a generous scenario. There are many crosswalks in New York City with walk intervals of 4-7 seconds.

    The problem is that the FHWA now specifies a walking speed of 3 feet for second (that’s 2 mph) to determine the duration of the walk interval – which is fine for informational purposes but is absurd when anybody who walks faster than that (most of us) can no longer begin crossing once the walk interval ends.

  • neroden

    Yeah. Our problem is not really the laws on the books — our problem is a giant crime gang pretending to be a police department, called the NYPD. It needs to be liquidated.

    It was quite a contrast to go over to Streetsblog Chicago and see that Chicago PD *actually arrests motorists* for running over pedestrians. And Chicago PD is famously corrupt. But apparently less corrupt than NYPD!

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