It’s the law – walk facing traffic


Q: When people walk along roadways, they should wear bright clothes and carry lights at night. Today black seems to be the dominant color, and that is plain dumb and dangerous. Also, people should walk facing traffic, so why do I often see pedestrians walking on the wrong side of the street?

A: You’re mostly not wrong, but you’re not exactly right either. As I write this, I’m sitting in a café. I took a look around, and every person here is wearing either dark or subdued colors. It’s Washington. That’s how we dress. Soon many of us in this café are going to become pedestrians, maybe crossing the street to our cars, or walking home. Meanwhile, on the road right outside the café, a cycling group just rode by, all wearing neon yellow or other bright colored jerseys.

My point here is that pedestrians (and cyclists) aren’t homogeneous groups. We become pedestrians for a lot of different reasons. Even the legal definition of pedestrian includes more folks than you might think. The law describes a pedestrian as “any person who is afoot or who is using a wheelchair, a power wheelchair, or a means of conveyance propelled by human power other than a bicycle.”

Consider what that includes; the kid on a skateboard headed to school, the toddler on a tricycle in a crosswalk with his parents, the power walkers in their reflective vests, the woman who just finished working the evening shift at a restaurant where the dress code for servers is all black and is walking four blocks to her bus stop, the person with all their belongings in the shopping cart they’re pushing.

Those pedestrians will have varying levels of visibility to drivers and awareness of their environment. Yes, in a more perfect world, they’d all have bright clothing and carry lights at night. Understand, I’m not making excuses for less-than-ideal pedestrian behavior. I’m just pointing out the reality that we drivers face.

I’ll challenge your statement that wearing dark clothing is, as you said, dumb. For some people, being a pedestrian is less a choice and more of an economic imposition. If you’re walking because you can’t afford a car, or maybe even a bus pass, you’re likely not in a position to be choosy about your clothing. Also, many people are what I call incidental pedestrians. As an example, consider the couple who can’t find a parking spot near the restaurant and end up walking a few blocks for date night.

You said pedestrians should wear bright clothes and carry lights at night, and later, that they should walk facing traffic. I’ll point out that your first ‘should’ is a good recommendation, while the second 'should’ is the law. Pedestrians are required to use sidewalks when available and accessible. Where there are no sidewalks, pedestrians are required to walk or roll facing traffic. And why wouldn’t you? I don’t want my back toward a potential hazard.

If we’re going to end traffic fatalities, it’ll take all of us. This isn’t a 50/50 arrangement. If I’m a pedestrian I need to commit 100 percent to being alert and visible, keeping in mind that some of the drivers I encounter may not be, for whatever reason, making driving their priority at that moment. If I’m a driver, I need to commit 100 percent to watching for vulnerable folks, knowing that some of them might be hard to see or unaware of the hazards around them. The relationship between drivers and other road users has to be 100/100. Will we get there? That’s up to us.


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