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.
The rules related to pedestrian right of way generally depend on where pedestrians and vehicles are interacting.
Generally, state right of way laws that apply to intersections are fairly clear.
Most intersections in cities and downtown areas have traffic lights and pedestrian crossing lights. Basically, these signals dictate the right of way rules.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
State right of way laws are especially protective of school children.
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 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.
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.