Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Confession

I consider myself (this is not the confession) a pretty good driver. I hang out in the slow lane on the freeway, come to a complete stop at stop signs, have an only-normal-for-geeky-folk understanding of the California Vehicle Code, and above all I carefully yield to pedestrians in crosswalks...or do I?

After watching footage of a crosswalk sting in Sacramento (posted here on Streetsblog), I realized (this is the confession) I hadn't the slightest idea what "yielding to pedestrians" really meant. Had I been doing it wrong all these years? In an effort to alleviate my guilt--and perhaps bring a little enlightenment to others confused by this question--I did some research.

First, the law itself: California Vehicle Code 21950 states that "The driver of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within any marked crosswalk or within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection."

People v. McLachlan (1939) clarifies that "yielding" doesn't necessarily mean stopping any time a pedestrian has a toe inside the crosswalk, "...it is clear that when a pedestrian crossing a roadway in a crosswalk is so far from the path of an approaching automobile and proceeding in such a manner that no interference between them is reasonably to be expected, the driver of the automobile need not wait for it to develop."

Moreover, once a pedestrian is walking away from a driver, the yielding point is moot, "It is equally clear that a driver, after having allowed a pedestrian to proceed undisturbed and unhurried in front of him and to reach a place safely out of the way of his automobile, with no apparent further danger of conflict between them, may proceed."

Just how far out of danger must pedestrians be before a vehicle can legally proceed through the crosswalk? People v. Hahn (1950) cautions that, "[the pedestrian's] right of way is not to be measured in fractions of an inch nor tested by split seconds. He is entitled not to just as much space as his body, clothes and buttons require, but to as much as will afford him a safe passage."

In other words, it might be okay to drive through a crosswalk if you give pedestrians ample berth--but whooshing past pedestrians so closely that their nosehairs flutter in the breeze isn't kosher. When in doubt, I suggest measuring according to this handy rule of thumb from the Hahn case, "The pedestrian's heart, as well as his body, should be free from attack."

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