A Discussion of Massachusetts Rules on Crosswalks

This appeared on the BostonAreaCycling e-mail list. It deserves repeating.

On Jun 29, 2014, at 10:13 PM, David Wean  wrote:

Vehicle operators are required to stop once pedestrians enter the crosswalk (or when they are, IIRC, within 10 feet of the lane the vehicle is in). A concern I have is that treating cyclists the same way we do pedestrians would obligate a vehicle operator (including another cyclist who is riding on the road, I suppose) to stop with very little notice, since cyclists on the path can travel at upwards of 5x the speed of pedestrians.

Under the proposed law would the operator of a vehicle in the road be liable or culpable if they hit a cyclist who was traveling at 20 mph and crossed the road without stopping or looking (in essence creating an implied Yield sign at every crosswalk)?

Under normal circumstances, it seems to me that the current right of way rules (e.g. the general principle that the operator on the more minor road yields to the one in the more major road, and the rules related to stop or yield signs) could handle this.

Can someone provide an example where the proposed law would be necessary?


At 08:17 AM 7/1/2014, Andrew Fischer wrote:
David, et al

To answer your question, under the proposed law, the operator of the motor vehicle would be presumed at fault if he struck a cyclist in a crosswalk. The motor vehicle operator could rebut that presumption by proving that the cyclist was more negligent because he came out into the crosswalk at 20 MPH, without stopping or looking.

This would not give the bicyclist the right to ride negligently or recklessly. It would merely reverse the present situation where the motorist gets a free pass for hitting a cyclist in a crosswalk.

Here’s how the law presently works: there are stop signs or yield signs for bicyclists approaching the bike path crossings. These signs were put there by the design engineers to warn cyclists of the approaching intersection and not because these engineers or anyone else ever thought through the legal consequences of the signs. Since the law presently requires motorists to yield only to pedestrians but not cyclists, this creates a presumption at law that the cyclist is at fault when the car, going 20 MPH and never slowing, hits the cyclist in the crosswalk. The notion that the painted white lines afford any protection to the cyclist is illusory.

The proposed legislation would reverse that presumption, affording bicyclists the protection of the white lines marking a bike path crossing, ­ lines that have no legal impact and create a false sense of protection.

This would not give a cyclist speeding through the intersection at 20 MPH without [word missing in original message] a free pass: ­ the motorist could offer evidence to rebut the presumption. But the proposed law would give the painted lines that appear to provide some protection to the cyclist some legal meaning. Besides, some preliminary counts by the BCU show that there aren’t many cyclists who dart from bike paths into roadway crossings at high speeds. It just doesn’t happen much because cyclists aren’t that stupid and suicidal.

I hope I have clarified your question. If not, I hope we can continue this discussion, as I think the proposed change to the law is a vulnerable user protection, the kind Massbike has otherwise pressed as important. This is because between bike and car, the cyclist is far more vulnerable than the motorist and should have some protection, as is the case in the Netherlands and most other European countries where cycling is protected.

Andrew M. Fischer

I responded:

I see one thing missing from the discussion: requirements for yielding right of way. With pedestrians they are clear: a driver (bicyclist too) on the road is required to yield once a pedestrian has set a foot in the crosswalk. That is the traditional law in the USA though, better, other countries, particularly the UK, have established waiting areas just outside the roadway where a pedestrian can stand and the driver is required to yield. Yielding doesn’t always mean stopping, for example if the pedestrian has already crossed to the far side of the roadway.

Bicyclists approach the crosswalk faster and don’t want to lose momentum or have to restart. Often it is not only more convenient for everyone but also safer for the bicyclist not to stop, and to cross quickly, especially when traffic on the road is heavy and gaps are short.

Posting a stop sign for bicyclists on the trail exempts motorists from yielding, as Andrew says, because a stop sign also requires under the law that the bicyclist yield. Then we get the “you go first, no you go first” scenario when both yield, or a crash when neither yields, and the law doesn’t properly cover either case.

I think that stop signs should be reserved for when stops are really necessary and that a different sign for the trail — a warning sign indicating a safe speed at which a bicyclist can keep moving — is appropriate if the sight lines are good enough to allow this. And, also we need a speed limit on the road consistent with yielding and signage to make it clear that drivers must yield.

There is already law that a driver can’t be held responsible if someone runs out into the street and there is not time to stop, but a presumption of negligence would hold the driver in the street (bicyclist in the street too!) guilty until proved innocent. Under our system of law, vulnerability isn’t an excuse for carelessness. Equity would require only that the yielding rules and signage be consistent and clear.

On the other hand, when driving in a parking lot or playground, or school zone or anywhere pedestrians roam, then it is appropriate for drivers to go very slowly and take extreme care. If we extend this requirement to every crosswalk, or beyond that to anywhere a child may possibly chase a ball out into the street, it has very serious effects not only on the concept of justice but also on the efficiency of travel. The ability to maintain speeds on the road above those at which sharing is safe with people who don’t follow rules of travel is unfortunately necessary to the existence of modern society. The alternative is the so-called “shared space” approach to roadway use, we have a de facto example of that in Massachusetts and I have blog posts and a video about it.


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