Cycling and Crosswalks: to Walk or to Ride, That is the Question
Crosswalks exist to enable people to cross streets in a safe manner. They provide pedestrians with a “zone of safety” within which they can cross the roadway. This zone of safety is physically defined by the markings on the roadway. Vehicles approaching the crosswalk are alerted to reduce their speed and to be cautious to allow people to cross safely. If a driver hits a pedestrian in a marked crosswalk, he or she is in violation of M.G.L. ch. 89 sec. 11 which states as follows:
Section 11. When traffic control signals are not in place or not in operation the driver of a vehicle shall yield the right of way, slowing down or stopping if need be so to yield, to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within a crosswalk marked in accordance with standards established by the department of highways if the pedestrian is on that half of the traveled part of the way on which the vehicle is traveling or if the pedestrian approaches from the opposite half of the traveled part of the way to within 10 feet of that half of the traveled part of the way on which said vehicle is traveling. No driver of a vehicle shall pass any other vehicle which has stopped at a marked crosswalk to permit a pedestrian to cross, nor shall any such operator enter a marked crosswalk while a pedestrian is crossing.
Does the same “right of way“ legal protection that applies to pedestrians also apply to cyclists? Must a driver yield the right of way to a cyclist crossing in a crosswalk? Is this a zone of safety for cyclists?
Strictly speaking, the answer is that a cyclist is not afforded the same status and protection as the statute affords to pedestrians. One could argue that if the legislature intended for the statute to afford equal safety protections to cyclists and pedestrians alike, it would have done so by including the word bicyclists in the statute. It did not do so.
But, practically speaking, the cyclist may use the crosswalk and has legal protection despite not being mentioned in the statute. Cyclists are permitted to ride across the crosswalk or to walk their bike across the crosswalk. However, depending upon which method of crossing they choose, their legal protections may be different if they are hit by a driver while in that crosswalk. The legal ramification may be that the cyclist who was hit while riding across the crosswalk MAY HAVE a more difficult time proving his or her case of negligence against the driver of the motor vehicle than might the cyclist who walked his or her bike across the crosswalk because the statute specifically gives the added protections to pedestrians.
But, statute aside, the specific facts of the unfortunate collision often will determine who is likely to prevail in the case in a court of law. Why is this so? The answer lies in other aspects of the law known as the common law or case law. Under cases decided by the Massachusetts courts over time, both the pedestrian and cyclist have a right to use the crosswalk and have a corresponding duty to use reasonable care for their own safety when doing so. At the same time the driver of a motor vehicle has a right to use the roadways of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This right is accompanied by a duty to use reasonable care for the safety of others when doing so.
A trial stemming from a crosswalk collision will involve an analysis of the actions of those involved in the collision, whether they be pedestrians, cyclists or drivers. The exact facts of each case will largely determine the outcome of the lawsuit. As an example, a pedestrian who enters the crosswalk where there is oncoming traffic in close proximity to the crosswalk and is hit by that oncoming vehicle, may be found to be more at fault than the driver for failing to use due care for his own safety, and lose the case in spite of the statute that seems to give him the right of way. On the other hand, a cyclist who rides his or her bike slowly across the crosswalk and crosses 90 percent or so of the roadway when she is hit by an oncoming motor vehicle has a strong case in spite of not having the “right of way protection” of the statute. The reason here is that an attentive driver approaching a crosswalk should see a cyclist crossing 90 percent of the roadway and would likely have had time to stop to enable the cyclist to complete the crossing. In this scenario, the driver failed to use due care for the safety of others. Time and distance matter a great deal in these cases. So, although the driver of the motor vehicle in both scenarios has a legal duty to keep a watchful eye for anyone crossing in a crosswalk, the outcome of the respective cases may be very different.
In Massachusetts, a plaintiff found to be more than 50 percent at fault loses his case. In some of these cases fault is deemed by the jury to be shared, both parties having failed in some way to use due care. If the plaintiff is 50 percent at fault or less, the plaintiff wins but compensation for damages is reduced by the percentage of his or her own fault or negligence as determined by the jury.
The primary legal factor that gives pedestrian status an advantage over cyclist status in crosswalk cases is that where the plaintiff is a pedestrian the jury will be informed of the statute which gives pedestrians the right of way. That is powerful. Unfortunately, as the law is currently written, if the plaintiff is a cyclist riding rather than walking across the crosswalk no statutory right of way exists. So, perhaps consider walking your bike across the crosswalk. Depending on the circumstances it may be a safer way to cross.
Gluck’s Legal Takeaway
Crosswalks can be dangerous. When you are driving a car watch out for and stop for anyone in a crosswalk. When cycling you may pedal across the crosswalk or walk your bike across. Whichever way you choose, enter the crosswalk after making sure it is safe to do so. Cyclists are afforded more legal protection if they get off of their bike and cross as a pedestrian.
Ride safely and stay healthy!
Attorney Ron Gluck is a founder and principal at Breakstone White and Gluck in Boston. Throughout his 35 year legal career Ron has represented seriously injured individuals in a variety of cases including cycling accidents involving catastrophic injury and wrongful death.
Ron is a member of the Charles River Wheelers. He wrote this article for the club's newsletter, WheelPeople, August 2020.