Special Report: Walkable Streets

Who Has the Right of Way at an Uncontrolled Crosswalk?

Many drivers assume they have the right of way at uncontrolled crosswalks, but both drivers and pedestrians have a shared responsibility to accommodate each other.

By Ryan McGreal
Published August 28, 2013

Last week, I posted an article about Cannon Street in which I noted that drivers were not respecting the newly painted zebra crossings on Cannon at Elgin and Smith streets.

Family trying to cross Cannon Street at Elgin
Family trying to cross Cannon Street at Elgin

There was some discussion and uncertainty about what the law actually says about pedestrians crossing at uncontrolled crosswalks, i.e. intersections where there are no stop signs, traffic lights or pedestrian crossovers (PXOs).

In my article, I quoted section 144(7) of the Highway Traffic Act, which states:

When under this section a driver is permitted to proceed, the driver shall yield the right of way to pedestrians lawfully within a crosswalk.

Combined with the Act's definition of a crosswalk as any intersection of two streets, this seemed to indicate that drivers must yield to pedestrians at an uncontrolled crosswalk.

Yet several municipal governments - including Hamilton - and even the Ontario Traffic Council of municipal engineers and officials claim that drivers don't have to stop for pedestrians, and pedestrians have to wait for "safe gaps" in traffic to cross an uncontrolled crosswalk.

I contacted the Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) to ask for clarification. Bob Nichols at the MTO was very helpful in responding to me.

Nichols confirmed that there are four types of intersection in which the Act specifically requires motorists to yield to pedestrians:

He pointed out that Section 144 "specifically addresses traffic control signals and pedestrian control signals, i.e., these are controlled crossings." In other words, it does not apply to uncontrolled crosswalks.

Section 135 deals with the right of way at uncontrolled intersections but only addresses right of way among drivers, not between drivers and pedestrians. In fact, nowhere does the Act explicitly state the respective responsibilities of drivers and pedestrians at an uncontrolled crosswalk.

According to Nichols, responsibility is "shared between pedestrians and drivers.

Pedestrians must ensure that drivers have seen them and that drivers are stopped, or are about to stop, before entering the roadway. Drivers need to exercise due diligence in the care and operation of their vehicles, to properly respond to the presence of pedestrians.

In practice, on a street like Cannon, this seems to mean that drivers don't believe they ever have to stop for pedestrians, and pedestrians must wait to cross until they can get across the street without encountering any cars.

However, the law actually does confer responsibility on both the pedestrian and the motorist at an uncontrolled crosswalk. In a follow-up response, Nichols clarified further:

If a driver is approaching an uncontrolled intersection and a pedestrian is already at the intersection and trying to cross it (meaning the pedestrian has not yet begun crossing), the driver is not lawfully required to yield.

If the pedestrian has already started crossing in the intersection, the driver does have to yield. The pedestrian, however, has to make sure there is a safe gap in the traffic before starting to cross.

In other words, the pedestrian does not have to wait for a gap in traffic that is big enough to get all the way across the street, but does have to wait for a gap in traffic that is big enough for drivers to be able to yield once the pedestrian has begun to cross.

Of course, on a street like Cannon this gets pretty academic. For one thing, a driver travelling unimpeded down a one-way multi-lane thoroughfare in a pack of synchronized traffic may not feel that it is safe to stop, even for a crossing pedestrian. In the past week I've heard several unpleasant anecdotes from drivers who were honked at by other drivers for yielding to pedestrians.

Also, as we know, the effective maximum penalty for a driver who fails to yield and kills a pedestrian is a $500 fine. It is theoretically possible to be charged with careless driving under section 130 of the Act:

Every person is guilty of the offence of driving carelessly who drives a vehicle or street car on a highway without due care and attention or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the highway and on conviction is liable to a fine of not less than $400 and not more than $2,000 or to imprisonment for a term of not more than six months, or to both, and in addition his or her licence or permit may be suspended for a period of not more than two years.

However, such charges are notoriously hard to prove and defendants can usually plea-bargain down to a failure-to-yield and a $500 fine.

Ultimately, the only thing that will make Cannon Street safer and more welcoming for pedestrians is to tame the automobile traffic by repurposing the right-of-way to support walking and cycling as well as driving.

At four one-way lanes, Cannon has way too much lane capacity for the automobile traffic it carries today. With a more humane street design that provides safe, dedicated space for pedestrians and cyclists, the current automobile traffic volumes will go down even more.

Air pollution will go down, walking and cycling will go up, the street will be safer and more convivial for the families who live on and near it, and local businesses will have a real chance to prosper and thrive.

See also:

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By grahamm (registered) | Posted August 29, 2013 at 01:10:11

As noted here Hamilton's pedestrians often yield to cars when it is, in fact, their right of way. I get waved through a tremendous number of stop signs.

I can't help but think that the new cross walks at uncontrolled locations, like the one just East of Canon and Mary, would benefit from additional signage such as this.

A street design that equalizes pedestrians and motorists is the real solution. But in the meantime, I feel like something is needed to explain what is expected of pedestrians and drivers are at these locations.

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By rednic (registered) | Posted August 29, 2013 at 08:17:05

I stood at that very intersection 2 days ago,the first 2 cars thru on the wave where police cars. When the cops won't stop no one else will.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted August 29, 2013 at 09:33:39

In the US police officers often run so-called "pedestrian decoy" campaigns to enforce the duty of motorists to stop for crossing pedestrians.

The police, in plain clothes, wait for a safe gap and then cross. They warn or ticket motorists who fail to yield.

It would be a huge help if the Hamilton Police Service would launch a similar campaign here, centred on the new zebra crossings. This would have the following benefits:

  1. It could be rolled out with a press campaign, as they do for the crack-downs on drunk drivers, "jaywalkers" and cyclists.

  2. It would help educate motorists about their duties to yield and emphasize that pedestrians have a right to cross, and don't need to wait until they can cross completely (which is very difficult on a four lane street, especially for the young or elderly).

  3. It would help police see for themselves the challenges pedestrians face every day in Hamilton just trying to get around.

  4. It might even add extra impetus to the need to add signs like those on the McMaster campus and in the US that remind motorists they must yield to crossing pedestrians.

  5. It would make pedestrians more confident that the police are looking to protect their traffic rights and safety as well as those of motorists.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2013-08-29 09:40:25

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted August 29, 2013 at 10:04:07 in reply to Comment 91517

It would help police see for themselves the challenges pedestrians face every day in Hamilton just trying to get around.

The implication here is a bit unfair. Police spend a tremendous amount of time downtown on foot and on bicycles. Obviously, they're also generally fit and aren't carting small children around so they aren't experiencing the worst parts of that, but still... Hamilton's police officers are probably the City employees with the best understanding of the frustrations of navigating the core outside of a car.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted August 29, 2013 at 11:15:00 in reply to Comment 91520

It is great that police are increasingly patrolling on foot and bicycle, especially for the way it helps them connect with the community at street level. I think it has made a big difference.

However, they are wearing uniforms when they are walking downtown, and just as motorists suddenly become much better drivers around police cars, I'm sure they are also more courteous to uniformed officers crossing than to "ordinary" people.

I'd be curious to know whether police officers have ever tried crossing back and forth at both controlled and uncontrolled intersections on streets like Cannon in plainclothes ... I really do think it would be an eye-opener!

Just as "ghost" cars are an important part of street policing, "ghost" officers could be an important part of encouraging motorists to yield to pedestrians.

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By rednic (registered) | Posted August 29, 2013 at 13:12:31 in reply to Comment 91526

Something like this perhaps ? http://www.thespec.com/news-story/404979...

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted August 29, 2013 at 14:50:03 in reply to Comment 91536

Yes, this sort of pro-active enforcement is a good idea.

But at least most motorists know they need to stop behind an unloading or loading school bus, and they know that they must yield to school crossing guards.

The problem is more acute for the rights of pedestrians to cross at uncontrolled intersections because mosts motorists don't even know they must yield to crossing pedestrians.

Having a pedestrian decoy campaign in addition to the school bus campaign would be great since schoolchildren must often cross uncontrolled intersections, and it would be a good idea for the police officers themselves to see how low the compliance rate is an uncontrolled intersections.

The fact that city has started painted zebra crossings at such intersections adds a new urgency to the need for education/enforcement.

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By frustrated (anonymous) | Posted August 29, 2013 at 10:39:48 in reply to Comment 91520

I see bicycle cops going through stop signs, riding on the sidewalk & going the wrong way on one way streets ALL THE TIME. Bit of a double standard going on.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted August 29, 2013 at 10:47:15 in reply to Comment 91522

If true, that suggests that the laws are indeed faulty. Perhaps stop signs becoming yield signs for bikes would be logical after all. Perhaps two way bike lanes on one way arterials is logical after all. As for sidewalks - my friend told me this week - "I would rather be ticketed, have my bike confiscated, anything, rather than ride on the road. To me, that is suicide. I will only ride on the sidewalk because I'm convinced I'll die otherwise". Only complete streets can change that perception of playing chicken with 2 ton vehicles.

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By movedtohamilton (registered) | Posted August 30, 2013 at 08:25:01

"If a driver is approaching an uncontrolled intersection and a pedestrian is already at the intersection and trying to cross it (meaning the pedestrian has not yet begun crossing), the driver is not lawfully required to yield. "

This is at the heart of the problem, near us at Wentworth & Delaware. Heavy southbound traffic is racing from the traffic light at Main St. Drivers NEVER yield to pedestrians, who are either trying to cross or have begun to cross the uncontrolled intersection. There are lines painted, and that's all there is.

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted September 01, 2013 at 20:32:41

Much ado about nothing. Wait for the "green wave" to pass, less than a minute, and then there is lots of time to amble across the street. I realize that there are times when waiting those 45 seconds feels like an eternity especially in inclement weather but it really isn't that big of a deal.

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By z jones (registered) | Posted September 02, 2013 at 21:22:17 in reply to Comment 91615

Written like someone sitting in a comfy car laughing out loud while racing past people waiting to cross the street.

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted September 05, 2013 at 00:42:30 in reply to Comment 91631

Written by someone who has lived in and around Hamilton for 50 years. I guess those 40 or 45 seconds really are a lot to ask for some of you.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted September 05, 2013 at 07:45:02 in reply to Comment 91714

Apparently 40 or 45 seconds is only a lot to ask of drivers. Particularly the ones who've been living 'in and around' Hamilton for 50 years.

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted September 05, 2013 at 22:21:11 in reply to Comment 91723

Actually I was talking as a pedestrian. I hate to argue with vehicles since I don't walk real well at the best of times. If I wait those few seconds it is ridiculously easy to cross any of the one way streets in this fair city even for someone who doesn't jog real well.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 05, 2013 at 07:57:12 in reply to Comment 91723

Lately I've been thinking about this quite a bit. It seems as though the people in the most comfortable transportation mode - sitting in ergonomic chairs and sheltered inside climate-controlled environments with sophisticated stereo music players, cup holders and so on - are by a generous margin the most impatient and distressed and the least tolerant of having to wait for anything.

I even notice it in myself: I'm at my most patient when I'm walking, I'm less patient when I'm cycling and I'm the least patient when I'm driving. Why is it, when we're reclining comfortably in a barcalounger on wheels, that we're in the biggest and most entitled hurry to get where we're going?

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted September 05, 2013 at 22:28:15 in reply to Comment 91724

What I see when I am around and about doesn't mesh with what you are saying. I don't see drivers or even cyclists moving and being totally oblivious to their surroundings the way pedestrians are especially when they are texting, listening to music talking on the phone or even reading. Walking onto a street without a glance or thought or any realization that they are not the only person in the world. Drivers and even cyclists cannot get away with that kind of behaviour and yet pedestrians routinely do. It's like they park their brains and home and walk with out them.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted September 05, 2013 at 08:31:18 in reply to Comment 91724

Speaking for myself, it's because, despite the relative physical comfort, driving is more stressful than those other modes. The stress and single-mindedness then manifest themselves in impatience and entitlement.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 05, 2013 at 08:37:17 in reply to Comment 91727

But is it more stressful because there is a bigger expectation to be able rush, i.e. to move fast and unimpeded in a direct line? And is that expectation fueled in part by the perceived last-minute convenience of driving, which tends to produce more ad-hoc trips? (I'm thinking, for example, of driving to the grocery store to buy one missing ingredient for a hastily-chosen dinner menu while the stove is on.)

I find that when I leave nice and early and embrace taking my time (as I do when I decide to walk or cycle), my experience of driving is not nearly as stressful or aggravating.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2013-09-05 08:38:09

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By Anon (anonymous) | Posted August 14, 2014 at 22:56:57

Does an uncontrolled crosswalk exist only where two streets cross or can it happen where one sidewalk continues, though the other sidewalk is broken in two, as at Warren Avenue and East 6th Street?

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By Denny dr (anonymous) | Posted October 27, 2015 at 09:29:13

So this is a big prob in front of a school nooo one stops. Blast through then drop their kids off for school. Need a crossing guard!!

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By SW (anonymous) | Posted March 08, 2016 at 10:51:50

In many jurisdictions vehicles by law must stop when a pedestrian is at waiting to cross at a legal crosswalk (that does not have a traffic signal which then takes precedence). This is also the courteous thing to do considering pedestrians do not have a steel cage protecting them. It does not matter if the crosswalk is marked or not. This includes, depending on the jurisdiction, all intersections, anywhere in a school zone, wherever a pathway intersects a road, and/or anywhere in a parking lot.

I was horrified with the behaviour of most drivers towards pedestrians when I first moved to Ontario. Now I am pleasantly surprized when I go elsewhere and drivers actually yield to pedestrians. I for one always yield and kudos to the other drivers that do. Shame on those drivers who do not.

I think that it is time for Ontario to get with in and change the law. Everyone will be safer and perhaps more drivers will become pedestrians.

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By the law (anonymous) | Posted March 08, 2016 at 18:22:00 in reply to Comment 116899

Pedestrians dont have right of way at uncontrolled intersections although vehicles must stop for them. Pedestrians must not step in front of traffic if traffic cannot stop. Reality is we need more crosswalks

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