Photo by Kate Mereand-Sinha on Flickr.

Montgomery County police are finally paying attention to the needs of pedestrians. But officers on the beat don’t seem to have gotten the message yet.  Pedestrians have even been ticketed for crossing the street in a legal manner.

In May, the county’s police department held their first “sting” targeting drivers who don’t stop at crosswalks. Just last week, when a student was hit by a fast-moving driver while crossing Veirs Mill Road, the police told TV stations that mid-block crossings are allowed at that location. This is a sharp reversal from the past, when the police would sometimes say a collision occurred outside a crosswalk without explaining that it’s legal to cross there.

But last week, a GGW reader in Bethesda spoke with an officer who was ticketing drivers making a forbidden turn into a residential neighborhood, but ignoring speeding violations on a street where many walk. Roads are made for cars, not pedestrians, she was told. The officer said that those on foot have a claim to safety in crosswalks only when drivers are kept away by red lights.

And earlier this month in Silver Spring, another GGW reader saw officers ticket pedestrians who were obeying the law. They were crossing Georgia Avenue mid-block between two intersections that don’t have traffic lights. This is perfectly legal, as long as the pedestrian yields the right of way to oncoming cars. The same officers ignored genuine violations by drivers, who failed repeatedly to stop for people walking in the adjacent unmarked crosswalks.

The Georgia Avenue sting took place on August 13 between Fenwick Lane and Planning Place. Neither of these intersections has a stoplight. Under Maryland law, unmarked crosswalks exist at both intersections, but motorists seem unaware of that fact. When drivers don’t know these crosswalks exist, and police don’t try to educate the drivers, there’s little reason for pedestrians to use them.

Green lines indicate marked crosswalks. Blue lines are unmarked crosswalks. The orange line is where ticketed pedestrians were crossing.

The distance between the nearest signalized intersections, located at Cameron Street and Spring Street, is 849 feet. The walk from halfway between the traffic lights to the signal and back takes 4 minutes. That is a lot of time to add to a short trip; traffic engineers consider an intersection “failing” when drivers are delayed by 80 seconds. Georgia Avenue is lined with offices, apartments, restaurants, and shops, so many pedestrians take the most direct route, as is their legal right.

What’s the law?

Maryland law is very clear about where pedestrians can and cannot cross. And the Silver Spring sting occurred where it is legal to cross.

First, let’s look at how crosswalks are defined in Maryland. The Maryland Transportation Code section 21-101 includes definitions for the terms relevant to transport. A crosswalk is defined as

that part of a roadway that is:

  1. Within the prolongation or connection of the lateral lines of sidewalks at any place where 2 or more roadways of any type meet or join, measured from the curbs or, in the absence of curbs, from the edges of the roadway;
  2. Within the prolongation or connection of the lateral lines of a bicycle way where a bicycle way and a roadway of any type meet or join, measured from the curbs or, in the absence of curbs, from the edges of the roadway; or
  3. Distinctly indicated for pedestrian crossing by lines or other markings.
While the third point may seem obvious, the first point is important to note. Any place where a street with sidewalks intersects another street, those sidewalks “extend” across the intersection, whether or not the department of transportation has put paint down. And while it’s not directly relevant to this discussion, Maryland law also defines “sidewalk.” It doesn’t have to be a paved area. Even when a traditional concrete sidewalk is not present, crosswalks still exist at every intersection. But pedestrians aren’t required to cross only at crosswalks, either. Section 21-503 explains what their rights are:
  1. In general. — If a pedestrian crosses a roadway at any point other than in a marked crosswalk or in an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection, the pedestrian shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle approaching on the roadway.
  2. Where special pedestrian crossing provided. — If a pedestrian crosses a roadway at a point where a pedestrian tunnel or overhead pedestrian crossing is provided, the pedestrian shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle approaching on the roadway.
  3. Between adjacent intersections. — Between adjacent intersections at which a traffic control signal is in operation, a pedestrian may cross a roadway only in a marked crosswalk.
  4. Crossing intersection diagonally. — A pedestrian may not cross a roadway intersection diagonally unless authorized by a traffic control device for crossing movements. If authorized to cross diagonally, a pedestrian may cross only in accordance with the traffic control device.

Let’s break this down. Pedestrians are allowed to cross at places other than crosswalks in certain circumstances. When crossing outside of a marked or unmarked crosswalk, pedestrians must yield the right-of-way to motorists.

Paragraph C is also important. It’s illegal for pedestrians to cross a street when both adjacent intersections are signalized. Otherwise, it’s okay to cross, so long as you yield to drivers.

The stretch of Georgia Avenue where Montgomery County police ticketed pedestrians does have two stoplights, at Cameron Street and Spring Street. But between them are two intersections without signals, at Fenwick Lane and Planning Place. That means this stretch is broken into 3 blocks, and it is perfectly legal to cross any any point in this stretch.

As a counter-example, take the block of Georgia between Ellsworth Drive and Colesville Road, in front of the Discovery Channel headquarters. Both of those intersections are signalized, and there are no intermediate intersections. Therefore, it is illegal to cross mid-block there.

Law requires drivers to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks

There are a few other laws that are noteworthy. Under section 21-502(c), it is illegal for any motorist to pass a driver stopped at a marked or unmarked crosswalk to allow a pedestrian to cross.

Section 21-502(a)(2) deals with when drivers must yield. In Maryland, waiting on the sidewalk is not enough. A pedestrian does not assert his or her right to cross until they step off the curb into the crosswalk. However, once the pedestrian steps into the crosswalk, they have the right-of-way on that half of the street, and they gain it on the other half when they step into the adjacent lane.

That means that if I’m crossing Georgia Avenue from west to east in a crosswalk, once I step into the southbound parking lane, the two southbound lanes must yield. Once I step into the leftmost southbound lane, northbound traffic must yield. I’ve found that a handy way to remind drivers to stop without endangering myself, when I’m walking to the grocery store, is to reach forward and wave my shopping bag in the next lane, but wait until the car begins to slow before I walk in front of it.

However, section 21-502(b) does make it illegal for a pedestrian to step out in front of a vehicle whose driver would not have time to stop. So although you ordinarily have the right-of-way at marked and unmarked crosswalks, you must let drivers pass first if they are too close to stop.

These laws set the basic framework for walkers, cyclists, and motorists to share Maryland roadways. With diligent and even-handed enforcement, we can have safer streets and more livable neighborhoods.