Traffic Q&A: Who has right of way at an unmarked crosswalk, cars or walkers?

A pedestrian uses an unmarked crosswalk to cross Sixth Avenue at South Trafton Street in Tacoma on Friday.
A pedestrian uses an unmarked crosswalk to cross Sixth Avenue at South Trafton Street in Tacoma on Friday. Staff writer

Q: Could you address the rules for pedestrian right of way at unmarked crosswalks on arterials like Jackson/Bridgeport, Sixth Avenue or 19th Street? – Mark V., Tacoma

A: These are dangerous waters Mark has asked us to sail.

There exists, in our view, an enduring enmity between those on foot and those behind the wheel, especially when the topic turns to who has the right of way when they meet at an intersection where a crosswalk is not clearly painted on the pavement.

Mark hinted at his allegiance in his recent missive to Traffic Q&A headquarters.

“Cars ignore pedestrians,” he wrote.

It might also be said in this era of ubiquitous mobile devices that pedestrians sometimes ignore cars.

A sticky wicket, but we get paid small amounts of money to navigate such controversies; so, forward.

First, let us define our terms.

What’s an unmarked crosswalk anyway?

We put the question to Tacoma police spokeswoman Loretta Cool.

She informed us that crosswalks exist at all intersections, whether there is a painted pedestrian path or not. Those without the paint are considered unmarked.

The law, as it turns out, treats marked and unmarked crosswalks just the same.

Here is Section 1 of RCW 46.61.235, titled, “Crosswalks”:

“The operator of an approaching vehicle shall stop and remain stopped to allow a pedestrian or bicycle to cross the roadway within an unmarked or marked crosswalk when the pedestrian or bicycle is upon or within one lane of the half of the roadway upon which the vehicle is traveling or onto which it is turning.

“For the purposes of this section ‘half of the roadway’ means all traffic lanes carrying traffic in one direction of travel, and includes the entire width of a one-way roadway.”

A point for the pedestrians!

Then there’s Section 2:

“No pedestrian or bicycle shall suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk, run, or otherwise move into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is impossible for the driver to stop.”

One for the drivers!

Cool, in her inimitable way, tried to strike some common ground.

“Pedestrians should always make sure there is no traffic and that they have sufficient time to cross the road clear of traffic,” she said. “Drivers are required to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks or at unmarked crosswalks.”

People on foot can help their cause by paying attention, Cool added.

“Pedestrians can also make their intent to cross the road more apparent to drivers before trying to cross,” she said.

“If you want to cross the roadway, stand on the corner looking at traffic facing the direction you intend to cross. Pedestrians that stand back, are texting on a phone, turning and moving back from the street all indicate to drivers they are not waiting to cross the road.”

There’s more from RCW 46.61.235, including Section 4:

“Whenever any vehicle is stopped at a marked crosswalk or at any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection to permit a pedestrian or bicycle to cross the roadway, the driver of any other vehicle approaching from the rear shall not overtake and pass such stopped vehicle.”

To sum up, drivers and pedestrians both have rights and responsibilities when it comes to unmarked crosswalks.

But as drivers, we have an even higher standard to meet, because we have the power of life and death in our hands.

And it’s not just us here at Traffic Q&A headquarters saying so.

This from RCW 46.61.245, titled, “Drivers to exercise care:”

“Notwithstanding the foregoing provisions of this chapter, every driver of a vehicle shall exercise due care to avoid colliding with any pedestrian upon any roadway and shall give warning by sounding the horn when necessary and shall exercise proper precaution upon observing a child or any obviously confused or incapacitated person upon a roadway.”

Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644, @TNTAdam,