Traffic Q&A: Stopping for pedestrians is good, courteous driving

Question: What does the law state for drivers stopping for pedestrians who are not at a crosswalk or a stoplight? They are simply standing at a corner waiting for traffic to clear. I live in the North End of Tacoma, and it is terrible around here. I have had several close calls, and my neighbor has been hit twice.

— Becki B., Tacoma

Answer: There’s the law, and then there’s the higher standard of courtesy and kind conduct to which we all should aspire, especially when piloting tons of steel and glass along urban thoroughfares.

Under the law, a driver is under no obligation to stop for a pedestrian waiting by the side of the road, no matter how long or how sympathetic they appear.

State statute requires a driver to stop for a pedestrian who has ventured forth into a crosswalk, whether it’s marked or unmarked as a crossing. (If the pedestrian is trying to cross midblock, then the car gets the right of way, under the jaywalking law.)

If the person hasn’t set foot into the crosswalk yet, then cars can keep rolling, free and legal, until they do.

As most any fresh transplant to Washington can tell you, that’s what happens in most large urban centers of the Eastern Time Zone: Cars take their turn, and pedestrians wait until there’s a safe gap in traffic, on rare occasions even waiting an endless minute or two until a “walk” sign (or symbol) grants foot traffic an official sanction.

But that’s back east.

Here in the Northwest, drivers tend to bring a more accommodating attitude behind the wheel.

Sometimes that’s not the best way to be.

For example, the overly polite way Washingtonians merge highway lanes by getting into line early tends to bring a shudder to the region’s efficiency-minded traffic engineers.

Other times, it just makes the world a friendlier place, particularly when morning commuter-time traffic offers few gaps for the students and joggers who tend to use city streets at the same hour.

“If a person is waiting on the side of the road, it is a courtesy to stop and allow them to cross,” Tacoma police spokeswoman Loretta Cool wrote in an email.

Again, that’s a courtesy move, not the law. Only your conscience will cite you if you decide not to halt the flow of traffic to allow that waiting pedestrian or bobbing-in-place jogger across. Not everyone does, and the world goes on.

We watched Friday morning at North 21st Street and Monroe — precisely where the two students were hit Oct. 2 — as three cars rolled along instead of pausing to allow two young parents to push their stroller northward.

Eventually, cars going each way decided to delay their movements for a moment to reward the family’s patience with safe passage.

We asked Cool whether such etiquette snarls traffic, leads to massive inefficiencies in the finely calibrated roads system or otherwise harms productivity across the region that insists on walkers-before-drivers etiquette.

“It does not create any significant traffic backups,” Cool wrote. “Pedestrians should always be alert when crossing a street, even when a car stops and the driver waves, verify all lanes are clear when crossing.

“Being a courteous driver costs very little time and assures everyone gets where they need to go safely!”

We’d also add that the ol’ thank-you-very-much wave of acknowledgment from the pedestrian is reliably appreciated by the folks behind the wheel, too. Politeness, like North 21st., is a two-way street.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693