A crosswalk doesn’t need paint to exist

Continental, ladder or zebra … crosswalks come in many stripes — and sometimes none at all.

Let’s take a look.

What is a crosswalk?

Street Smarts reader Dave Maness of Arlington notes that a crosswalk doesn’t require paint on pavement — and this can lead to confusion on the part of many drivers.

“It’s scary crossing the streets around here,” Maness said. He recalled in Marysville trying to cross at a T-intersection with no painted crosswalk after getting off at a bus stop there. “Some guy yelled, ‘Quit jaywalking!’,” Maness said. “He didn’t know it was a crosswalk.”

So if not paint, what exactly is a crosswalk?

It’s a question that can even stump law enforcement, as I’ve discovered.

State law defines a crosswalk in this wordy way: “The portion of the roadway between the intersection area and a prolongation or connection of the farthest sidewalk line or in the event there are no sidewalks then between the intersection area and a line ten feet therefrom, except as modified by a marked crosswalk.”

You can find an even more wordy description in the Uniform Vehicle Code, if you enjoy torturing the plain English language. (Can I get an “ah yeah” from all the non-lawyers? Thank you.)

Basically, if there’s an intersection and no signs prohibiting pedestrian crossings, then there’s a crosswalk, whether there’s paint or not (and whether it’s even a good idea for a human to attempt to interrupt massive hunks of metal traveling faster than a patas monkey).

To put it another way: Take a sidewalk — or, if there’s no sidewalk, imagine where a sidewalk would be — and then mentally extend it across the road. Voila. Crosswalk.

As a general rule of thumb, drivers should always yield to a pedestrian waiting to cross a road at an intersection, said J.C. Fawcett, administrator at Defensive Driving School of Everett.

But as a hard and fast rule, yielding to pedestrians at unmarked crosswalks is more of a gray area in practice. Unless it’s a close call, “this is something that you’re seldom going to get ticketed for, even if a police officer is following you,” Fawcett said.

Marked crosswalks safer?

Simply slapping down some white paint doesn’t necessarily make things clearer or safer, by the way.

A federal study in 2005 found that painted crosswalks at otherwise uncontrolled intersections had no impact on the numbers of pedestrians struck — and on the busiest roads, they actually made things worse. Absolutely nothing would have been better.

Now, throw in some other improvements along with that paint, such as a pedestrian “refuge island” in the middle of the road, and then things tend to improve.

It’s all about instilling a sense of caution.

No matter how many blinking lights and painted stripes there are, pedestrians and drivers alike should never assume the other party knows what they’re doing.

“At the intersection itself, the vehicle should yield to the pedestrian,” Fawcett said. “I’ll be the first to tell you, many will not. And if you’re the pedestrian, you shouldn’t assume that they will stop.”

It’s also worth noting that the only way a crosswalk can exist mid-block is by being marked. Vehicles have the right-of-way otherwise.

Have a question? Email us at streetsmarts@heraldnet.com. Please include your name and city of residence. Look for updates on our Street Smarts blog.

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