I recently got this question from a member, and it touches on what I think is a poorly understood but very important traffic safety concern:
I noticed this crosswalk law mentioned in a story and wondered what it means for bicyclists? Are you familiar with this law?
“Wisconsin’s pedestrian “right-of-way” law, or Statute 346.24 reads, Crossing at uncontrolled intersection or cross-walk. (1) At an intersection or crosswalk where traffic is not controlled by traffic control signals or by a traffic officer, the operator of a vehicle shall yield the right−of−way to a pedestrian, or to a person riding a bicycle or electric personal assistive mobility de-vice in a manner which is consistent with the safe use of the cross-walk by pedestrians, who is crossing the highway within a marked or unmarked crosswalk.
(2) No pedestrian, bicyclist, or rider of an electric personal assistive mobility device shall suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk, run, or ride into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is difficult for the operator of the vehicle to yield.
(3) Whenever any vehicle is stopped at an intersection or crosswalk to permit a pedestrian, bicyclist, or rider of an electric personal assistive mobility device to cross the roadway, the operator of any other vehicle approaching from the rear shall not overtake and pass the stopped vehicle.”
As part of the Bike Fed’s statewide Share & Be Aware Program, our staff work with driver education instructors from around the state and do direct outreach to educate people about the rules of the road regarding the interaction between different road users: people walking, bicycling and driving motor vehicles. Through that experience, we have learned that some of the least understood laws are those regarding sidewalks and crosswalks, particularly when it comes to definitions and right of way.
The state makes almost all of the rules of the road, but allows local municipalities to determine if and when it is legal to ride bicycles on sidewalks. In most (but not all) urban situations, or in suburban areas with high traffic volumes and lots of turning movements (like highways near big box stores and strip malls) it is less safe to ride on the sidewalk than in the street, so bicycles really shouldn’t be in the crosswalk. Sometimes however, on streets without bicycle facilities, people feel safer on the sidewalk and municipalities allow it, even if it is statistically more dangerous. In those situations or in situations where a person on a bicycle needs to make a pedestrian style turn, bicycles will be in the crosswalk.
Bicycles will also be in crosswalks where multi-use paths intersect with streets. The Hank Aaron State Trail does this at a number of marked and unmarked crosswalks at uncontrolled intersections in Milwaukee. The Glacial Drumlin crosses a number of rural roads with unmarked crosswalks and no traffic control.
It sounds basic, but let’s back up and remind ourselves what a crosswalk is, where we find crosswalks and how they vary. To help, I had the diagram below created. In it you can see marked crosswalks, unmarked crosswalks and people in crosswalks at different points of crossing.
A crosswalk is defined in statute 340.01(10):
(10) “Crosswalk” means either of the following, except where signs have been erected by local authorities indicating no crossing:
(a) Marked crosswalk. Any portion of a highway clearly indicated for pedestrian crossing by signs, lines or other markings on the surface; or
(b) Unmarked crosswalk. In the absence of signs, lines or markings, that part of a roadway, at an intersection, which is included within the transverse lines which would be formed on such roadway by connecting the corresponding lateral lines of the sidewalks on opposite sides of such roadway or, in the absence of a corresponding sidewalk on one side of the roadway, that part of such roadway which is included within the extension of the lateral lines of the existing sidewalk across such roadway at right angles to the center line thereof, except in no case does an unmarked crosswalk include any part of the intersection and in no case is there an unmarked crosswalk across a street at an intersection of such street with an alley.
The designs and patterns of paint, colored pavement or pavers varies for marked crosswalks, but most crosswalk are unmarked, with no paint, like most residential side streets in cities, towns and villages. The most important take-away from this is that a crosswalk exists between two sidewalks on any street is crosswalk, whether it is marked with paint or not.
Crosswalks can be found at controlled intersections (those with stop or yield signs or traffic signals) or at uncontrolled intersections with no signs or signals to define right of way. At signalized intersections, of course people are required to obey the signal. The confusion comes in at uncontrolled intersections. I’ll try to answer the most common questions below, and how they relate to people on bicycles as well as people walking.
When can a person start crossing the street at an uncontrolled intersection? As statute 346.24(2) states, “suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk, run, or ride into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is difficult for the operator of the vehicle to yield.” What that means is that you can begin crossing a street at a crosswalk as long as approaching vehicles have time to stop. On an urban street with posted limits of 25-30 miles per hour, you can safely begin to cross the street if the approaching vehicles are about half a block away. At 25 mph, the stopping distance (including thinking time to recognize the need to stop) is only 25 feet. A city block is about 300 feet long, so if you start crossing a typical 50ft wide arterial street with approaching traffic 150 feet away, you have every reason to assume they will yield the right of way to you, whether you are on a bicycle or walking.
When is a person in a crosswalk if there are no lines? A person is in a crosswalk as soon as they put a foot off the curb or their bicycle wheel breaks the plane of the vertical curb face. That means that if someone is standing with one foot in the road and the other on the curb, approaching motor vehicle traffic is required to allow them to cross, which may involve slowing or stopping.
The problem is that many people walking or riding bicycles wait until the road is completely clear of traffic rather than begin crossing when they can safely expect oncoming traffic to yield. This is a problem not only because at peak hours or on high-volume roads, this can mean a long wait at the curb, but because it conditions people in motor vehicles that they don’t have to let people cross the road. Sometimes when I stop for someone waiting in the crosswalk, they even wave me on. While that is their right to wait, again, it sends the wrong message about each of our responsibilities to obey the law and share the road with other users. Because so many people are timid pedestrians, we have developed a driving culture in Wisconsin in which the norm is people don’t yield to pedestrians. That is not the case in other places, like Seattle or even car crazy Los Angeles.
We would all be safer and better off if everyone obeyed the rules of the road, and people at crosswalks were cautiously assertive. Here is how I cross a street, whether riding a bicycle on the Hank Aaron State Trail on my way to a meeting or walking to a restaurant in my neighborhood. I make a point to look for cross traffic well in advance of the crosswalk and if it appears that approaching vehicles in both directions have adequate time and distance to stop, I keep my forward travel speed consistent. I don’t hesitate at the curb, and enter the crosswalk very purposely. At the same time I keep an eye on approaching traffic in case vehicles don’t appear they are going to yield.
This technique works very well, and I rarely have problems crossing a street. I also think it is more fair to people in motor vehicles because my behavior is clear and consistent with the rules of the road. When people do have to slow or stop to let me cross, I smile and wave thanks to them. On the rare occasion when someone in a car honks at me, I motion with both arms at the crosswalk between the two sidewalks and keep moving.
On a very few occasions, I have even been honked at when crossing by one of the in-street signs that says “State Law: Yield to Pedestrians within Crosswalk,” so if it happens to you, don’t get mad. Our culture of driving in the midwest is changing, but there are still a lot of people behind the wheel who get angry any time they have to use their brake pedal. You can help that culture continue to improve by taking a cautiously assertive approach to crossing streets at crosswalks.
Remember, it is nice to be right, but you don’t want to be dead right.
To request a S&BA Ambassador to come to your community and teach a pedestrian class, visit http://wisconsinbikefed.