By: Robert J. Stoney
A largely hidden danger confronts bicyclists and pedestrians approaching a crosswalk from the right at every intersection in Virginia. A great site to find tips on bicyclist and pedestrian safety is http://www.vdot.virginia.gov/programs/bk-laws.asp. Drivers preparing to turn right on red focus their attention to the left at oncoming traffic. When they see a break in the traffic, they accelerate through the crosswalk with their attention still riveted to the left. These drivers typically do not even look to the front of their vehicle before entering the intersection. Because traffic is so congested, they often speed up very quickly. Pedestrians and bicyclists who have the misfortune of entering the crosswalk in front of these inattentive drivers suffer the consequences.
In fourteen years of a practice in Northern Virginia, I have represented nearly a dozen pedestrians and bicycle riders struck in the crosswalk by cars turning right on red. Each of these victims had the right of way. Each of the victims suffered very serious injuries. All of them broke bones. Several suffered closed head injuries. Three were completely run over.
Often, the injured person is so far into the crosswalk that they are struck by the driver’s side bumper. In one case, an 84 year old great grandmother walking her dog was hit, but her dog – Mollie – had already cleared the front of the car and was spared injury.
The drivers of the vehicles involved are not bad people. They are truly shocked when they feel the impact and look forward to see a pedestrian or a bike flying over their hood.
The problem is the different perspectives of vehicle drivers and pedestrians. Vehicle drivers are focused on avoiding other vehicles. They tend not to think of pedestrians or bicyclists in the roadway and are thus not on the alert for a person in front of them.
People using the sidewalks, on the other hand, trust that when they get the “Walk” sign, cars will honor their right of way. They do not perceive that the driver’s attention is diverted and tend not to consider that the driver might drive through the crosswalk while the light is red without looking to the right or even forward first.
Blankingship & Keith has prepared clear window stickers to be placed on the driver’s window of your vehicle about four inches above the door frame. As you look to the left they will remind you not to begin your turn until you look back to the right. These stickers are available free of charge. Click here to get your free window sticker.
Through the cases I have had, I have learned that a few simple steps taken by pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers can significantly reduce the number of right-turn-on-red accidents and help make Virginia a safer place for all:
Steps for the Pedestrian and Bicyclist
- Although you have the right of way in a crosswalk, in an altercation between your body and two tons of steel, you are going to lose. It is not negligent to lawfully enter a crosswalk when you have the right of way, but you should anticipate the inattention of the driver. Practice “defensive walking and riding.”
- Assume that the driver does not know you are there. Do not cross in front of any vehicle until you have made eye contact with the driver.
- Carry a whistle. If you cannot get the driver’s attention by gesture, give them a sharp blast of sound. Once they turn toward you, make the eye contact.
- When on a bike, wear bright clothing. In addition to the whistle, have a bell on your bike. Always ring the bell when approaching an intersection. If the driver does not turn toward you, use the whistle.
- Bicyclists should obey the rules of the road. Motor vehicle drivers have the right to expect bicyclists to obey the same rules that govern all traffic. Do not weave in and out of traffic. Do not run stop signs or red lights.
Steps for the Motor Vehicle Driver
- Practice consciously looking back to your right before making a right turn on red. You will be surprised how unnatural it feels at first.
- Scan the sidewalks to your right as you approach a controlled intersection and make note of approaching pedestrian and bike traffic. Both the sidewalk on the road you are on and the sidewalk on the road you plan to turn on may have foot traffic that will use the crosswalk in front of your car.
- Remember that you don’t have the right to turn on red UNLESS it is safe to do so. People in the crosswalk have the right of way. Missing an opening in traffic may be inconvenient, but the consequences of striking a pedestrian are far greater for both you and the victim, so take the extra time to make sure your path is clear before proceeding.
- Place the free window sticker on your driver’s side window to remind you to look to your right before you turn.
Bicyclists, pedestrians and motor vehicles can share road space safely if all concerned pay attention to everyone on the road and anticipate the actions of others. These simple steps can reduce injuries at intersections and make Northern Virginia a safer place for all.