It’s midnight on a Saturday. You’re driving home through party central (pick your setting: Hillcrest, North Park, Pacific Beach). Bar patrons flood the sidewalks and start to pour into the street. You look up to check the upcoming stoplight and THUD… you accidently hit a drink coed who stumbled into your lane.
After you call the police and make a report, you start to worry. Are you at fault? Everyone has always said that “the pedestrian always has the right of way”, but is that true?
I am here to give you the answer attorneys love to give to open ended questions: it depends. In fact, the saying that “the pedestrian always has the right of way” is just that, only a saying and not law. Unfortunately, the law on the topic is a bit confusing and not as straight forward as one would think.
Everyone is familiar with the pedestrian crosswalk at a traffic light or stop sign. The law requires you to come to a complete stop (at a stop sign or red traffic light), and because of the stopping requirement, any pedestrians wishing to cross the street may do so.
But, what if there’s a marked crosswalk, but no stop sign or traffic signal “controlling” the area? What about when no crosswalk is visible? Should the motorist be responsible? In California, the law describes both the responsibilities of the pedestrian, and the motorist. However, they are not as cut-and-dry as people think.
“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. The driver of a vehicle approaching a pedestrian within any marked or unmarked crosswalk shall exercise all due care and shall reduce the speed of the vehicle or take any other action relating to the operation of the vehicle as necessary to safeguard the safety of the pedestrian.” CVC 21950(a & c). Sounds reasonable enough, and you probably knew that. But, as we know, there are crosswalks that are not at intersections, where there is no need for a motorist to stop other than for a pedestrian.
But what responsibilities does a motorist have if a pedestrian is crossing? CVC 21950(c). Ultimately, a motorist must yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk (marked or otherwise).
CVC 21950(b) continues to read, “no pedestrian may suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle that is so close as to constitute an immediate hazard.” But what does “so close as to constitute an immediate hazard” mean in the real world? 10 feet? 10 yards? 100 yards? Again, it depends. What is the speed limit for the area? Is it a controlled crosswalk? What are the weather conditions? There are many factors that come into play when assessing whether a pedestrian may share fault with a motorist.
Because of the ambiguity of the laws, cases where pedestrians are injured after being struck by a vehicle are difficult, and the parties often share liability. Specific facts such as how many times a pedestrian looked for oncoming traffic, the visibility on the day of the accident and the speed of the motorist and a host of others all come into play for an investigation into the responsible party.
Moral of the story? Whether you are a pedestrian enjoying your latte on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in La Jolla, or a motorist driving to a business meeting downtown, make sure to be aware of your surroundings. Only enter the street or cross a crosswalk when it is safe to do so. There are many distractions in our beautiful city of San Diego, so stay focused and get where you are going safely!