Do Pedestrians Have the Right of Way?

The rules of the road related to when drivers must yield to pedestrians and vice versa.

Motorists should always use extra care when pedestrians are present. But, at the same time, pedestrians don't have carte blanche authority to cross the street or meander on roadways wherever they please.

All states have laws specifying the right of way rules that apply between pedestrians and vehicles. This article covers the pedestrian-vehicle right of way rules and the penalties a driver or pedestrian could face for failing to properly yield the right of way.

Right of Way Rules for Pedestrians and Vehicles

The rules related to pedestrian right of way generally depend on where pedestrians and vehicles are interacting.

Pedestrian Right of Way at Intersections

Generally, state right of way laws that apply to intersections are fairly clear.

Intersections With Traffic Signals

Most intersections in cities and downtown areas have traffic lights and pedestrian crossing lights. Basically, these signals dictate the right of way rules.

  • Crosswalk lights. When an intersection has signals indicating when a pedestrian can cross (often a white "walk" symbol or red "don't walk" symbol), the pedestrian has the right of way when the signal indicates to walk. When the signal changes to don't walk, pedestrians aren't allowed to start crossing and should promptly proceed through the intersection if they are in the process of crossing.
  • Traffic lights. If the intersection has a traffic light but no pedestrian signals, pedestrians must wait until the parallel-traveling traffic has a green light. However, pedestrians must also be cautious of parallel traffic that may be turning. Parallel vehicles must yield the right of way to pedestrians crossing the intersection.

If painted crosswalks are present at an intersection, pedestrians should cross only in the designated areas. Yielding vehicles should not stop on or in a painted crosswalk area.

Intersections Without Signals

In more rural or residential areas, traffic and pedestrian signals aren't always present at intersections. Many intersections in these areas have stop signs or no signals or signs at all.

  • Stop or yield signs. When parallel traffic has a stop sign, pedestrians generally are also required to stop prior to entering the intersection and can proceed only when they can safely cross without impeding traffic (this rule is basically to prevent pedestrians from jumping out in front of moving vehicles). This is especially true in higher-speed areas (over 35 miles per hour). Likewise, a vehicle with a stop sign must yield to crossing traffic and crossing pedestrians. Drivers and pedestrians that do not have the stop or yield sign can generally proceed into the intersection but should still take caution for turning drivers or inattentive pedestrians.
  • No signs. When no signs are present at an intersection, the vehicle or person who arrives first at the intersection generally has the right of way. Vehicles or persons who don't have the right of way must stop and wait until the intersection is clear before proceeding ahead.

When crosswalks are present at an intersection, perpendicular traffic—including turning traffic—must yield to any person in the crosswalk area and must not enter until it is completely clear of pedestrians.

Pedestrian Right of Way Outside of Intersections

Most state laws related to pedestrian right of way pertain to intersections. However, states generally have right of way laws for the protection of pedestrians in other areas.

Crosswalks Located Away From Intersections

When pedestrians are present at a marked crosswalk that's not adjacent to an intersection, vehicles approaching the crosswalk must come to a complete stop and yield to the crossing pedestrians. Sometimes the crosswalk will also be accompanied by a traffic light and crossing signal. The signal will generally turn red to stop traffic and then indicate via a crossing signal that it is safe for pedestrians to cross. Even if the crosswalk is clear of pedestrians, vehicles aren't allowed to proceed until the red light has changed.

Sidewalks and Road Shoulders

When traveling parallel to traffic, pedestrians should remain on the sidewalk. If there aren't any sidewalks, pedestrians can walk on the shoulder but must be as far right as possible. Certain roads, such as interstates, prohibit any pedestrians on or near the roadway.

Vulnerable Pedestrians

Regardless of signage, crosswalk markings, and other right-of-way rules, the laws of most states specifically require drivers to take precautions and yield to particularly vulnerable pedestrians such as children and blind persons. In other words, the law requires drivers to anticipate that one of these particularly vulnerable pedestrians could unexpectedly step into the road without warning.

Pedestrian Right of Way at School Crossings

State right of way laws are especially protective of school children.

School Crossings

Similar to normal crosswalks, drivers are required to yield to any children present at a crosswalk, whether at an intersection or in the middle of the roadway.

School crossings may also be attended by a crossing guard. While crossing guards typically aren't law enforcement, drivers are still required to yield to their instructions and directions.

School Buses

School buses effectively act as moving crosswalks. Any time a school bus stops, all adjacent traffic must come to a stop a certain distance back and allow the disembarking children to safely cross the street. Traffic may not resume until all children are safe and the school bus has disabled its crossing indicators.

Right of Way Violation Penalties

Pedestrians who violate crossing laws will generally face a fine of less than $100, if they are cited at all.

However, for drivers who fail to properly yield for a pedestrian, the fines can be expensive (up to $500 or so). A failure to yield violation might also carry driver's license demerit points.

The penalties can be even more severe for right of way violations at school crossings or when related to school buses. In some states, school crossing violations carry possible jail time, fines of up to $1,000, and license suspension.