Practice patience and give pedestrians time to fully cross road. The law offers support

Philip A. Dwyer/
·3 min read

Question: What is the law for how long you are supposed to stay stopped when someone in a crosswalk has passed in front of you and is near the sidewalk on the other side of the street? I asked this because almost daily I will be behind a car that waits until the person is on the sidewalk on the other side.

Answer: When I first read your question, I assumed that the car you’re behind almost daily is some random different driver each time. When I read it again, I wondered if you’re actually stuck behind the same driver; maybe you both have the same route on your morning commute, and you’re continually in the same situation with the same person. (Now I’m imagining that it’s the same pedestrian too. How far can I take this?) If that’s the case, you could avoid the whole situation by leaving for work a minute earlier, but that wouldn’t solve the underlying question, would it?

You asked about the law, so I’ll start there. The Revised Code of Washington states that drivers shall stop for pedestrians “upon or within one lane of the half of the roadway upon which the vehicle is traveling or onto which it is turning.” I know, that’s a cumbersome sentence (and I only quoted about a third of the original text.) It’s also easy to misunderstand.

Are the words “upon or within” redundant in this law? If they were, it would suggest that drivers must stop for pedestrians only on their half of the road. However, that’s not how the Washington Driver Guide (or other states with similar laws) understands it. The accepted interpretation of the law concludes that “upon” references pedestrians on your half of the roadway, and “within” references pedestrians one lane or less from your half of the road.

Based on all of that, here’s my attempt at a simple explanation: You have to stop for pedestrians that are on your half of the road, plus one lane-width next to your half of the road.

Sidebar for lawyer math: When can 50% mean 100%? In the law. The law defines “half of the roadway” as all traffic lanes in one directions of travel; on a one-way road that includes the entire width.

One piece of information missing from your question is the number of lanes in the road. On a two-lane roadway, “upon or within one lane of the half of the roadway” would be the full width of the roadway.

In that case, the driver in the original question that waits until the person is on the sidewalk on the other side of the street is following the law perfectly. On a four-lane road with two lanes going in each direction, that driver has waited a little longer than required by the law.

Let’s assume, for this discussion, that we’re talking about a four-lane road and the driver in front of you waits longer than the law requires. Is that so bad? It cost 10 seconds and no one was harmed. Yes, the law is important; it’s the framework we use to cooperate on the road. However, I’m much more tolerant of drivers who try my patience than of drivers who don’t exercise enough of their own.

Even if you know the law, you can’t control what other people know or how they respond. Use driving as a time to practice letting go of what’s outside of your dominion. Breathe. Contemplate the meaning of life. I mean, you have the time; you’ll be there until that pedestrian reaches the sidewalk.

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