Drivers of a car and a Metro bus doing it right. We’ll ignore the car behind the bus. Photo by Mike Bjork.

More and more of us are riding transit every day. But the numbers say we also drive cars ($). 81 percent of Seattle households (including my own) still own at least one car. Many of those who don’t own cars use car sharing from time to time. Cars aren’t a sustainable solution for the majority of urban travel, but they will always be the best tool for certain trips.

Unfortunately, they’re also highly lethal, to the tune of over 40,000 deaths annually across the country—a number big enough to qualify as a leading cause of death and a major public health problem. In Seattle alone, we had 21 traffic fatalities in 2016, including 7 pedestrians and 5 cyclists killed. Nearly all of those fatalities are caused at least partly by driver inattention.

If you are a driver, you can reduce this risk! In last year’s “Driving for Urbanists” post, Zach described several ways drivers can make streets safer, most of which amount to treating other users with respect and courtesy. This time, I want to zoom in on just two aspects of respectful driving: crosswalks and lane control. Paying attention to these two things will make your driving as a whole much less threatening to vulnerable road users.

Yes, That Is A Crosswalk. Drive Accordingly.

If someone says “crosswalk,” you probably think of something marked with painted lines or zebra stripes. There are far more crosswalks than that. And you need to be prepared to yield to pedestrians at every single one. State law (RCW 46.04.160) defines a crosswalk as:

the portion of the roadway between the intersection area and a prolongation or connection of the farthest sidewalk line or in the event there are no sidewalks then between the intersection area and a line ten feet therefrom, except as modified by a marked crosswalk.

In non-lawyer English, this means that every side of every intersection is a legal crosswalk. That’s true even when:

  • There is a marked crosswalk on one side of the intersection, but no crosswalk markings on the other.
  • There is a marked crosswalk on the next block.
  • A residential street intersects a big multi-lane road.
  • There are no sidewalks.
  • Visibility is poor.

The only exceptions are on freeways or where there is a sign or barrier specifically prohibiting pedestrians from crossing.

The intersections in this picture (crude graphics solely the author’s fault) demonstrate some of these cases vividly. All of the areas outlined in brown are legal crosswalks where you, as a driver, are required by law to yield to pedestrians.

Satellite map of Madison, Seneca, and 11th, with overlay of marked and unmarked crosswalks

The ubiquity of unmarked crosswalks has a few implications for drivers. First, slow down. It’s impossible to scan every one of the many unmarked crosswalks if you’re driving too fast. Second, yield for pedestrians at every single intersection—especially where the idea seems crazy to you. Your legal obligation to yield doesn’t change because the intersection seems like an inappropriate place to walk. Third, if you see another car stopped ahead, look carefully before you pass to make sure the other car isn’t stopped to yield to pedestrians. State law (RCW 46.61.235(4)) prohibits drivers from passing other cars that are stopped for that reason. Finally, where you are waiting at a traffic light or stop sign, stop so your entire car is positioned behind the crosswalk, not in it—whether or not the crosswalk is marked.

You may think “Won’t I be scanning and stopping awfully often if I take these rules seriously?” Well, yes, you will. And that’s a good thing! A stop for a pedestrian costs only a few seconds of your time, and requires only a push of the brake pedal for effort. Those few seconds can save a life, and also help change the norm that car drivers are the only street users that matter.

Take Lane Markings Seriously.

On any stretch of street with a curve, you’ll notice that lane markings on the inside of the curve are worn off. Car drivers have a habit of cutting corners. It allows them to slow down less for the corner, while also reducing the cornering forces their bodies feel. Unfortunately, it’s also one of a group of unsafe practices that fall into the category of “not staying in lanes.”

State law (RCW 46.61.140(1)) requires, for any road divided into lanes:

(1) A vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from such lane until the driver has first ascertained that such movement can be made with safety.

Bicyclist hidden from car cutting corner

In our crowded city, movement out of a lane can’t be “made with safety” without a careful check. On the right, there are likely cyclists, doors of parked cars, or, where sidewalks are missing, pedestrians. On the left, there are other vehicles, whether moving in the same or the opposite direction. And, if you leave the lane in a curve, chances are good that you can’t see any safety issues.

To the right, a crude mockup of typical corner-cutting behavior illustrates the problem. By the time our corner-cutting driver gets within visual range of the cyclist, he will have to swerve or stop to avoid hitting the cyclist. No such evasive maneuver would be necessary had the driver stayed in the lane.

Leaving the lane is also a problem in other scenarios. Cars encroaching on a bus or streetcar lane may delay transit service for large numbers of riders. Cars encroaching on bike lanes present severe safety problems for cyclists, sometimes forcing them suddenly into car traffic when drivers least expect it. Cars that turn without first moving fully into a turn lane may block other cars while waiting to turn safely. Cars leaving lanes are likely to sideswipe each other, parked cars, or fixed objects.

Fortunately, staying in lanes is not difficult, once you are aware of the importance of doing so. Be aware of where your lane is, and consciously drive within the lines. Slow down enough to avoid any need to cut corners. Move all the way into turn lanes before making turns. Signal every lane change, even when you think no other users are present, and leave enough time to glance over your shoulder before moving into the new lane. By using this extra caution, you will reduce accident risk for both yourself and road users who are in places where you aren’t supposed to be.

26 Replies to “PSA: Driving Respectfully”

  1. David, I think you’ve got some extremely important professional advice, so you might want to do another posting on handling your vehicle. Somebody who remembers high school “Drivers’ Ed”- how would you rate your Education? So just a few further points out of many.

    1. Practice smoothing out your driving at any speed. Any situation David’s referring to here, you shouldn’t feel very much acceleration, turning, or stopping. Not only safer, but maintenance costs go down fast. And you’ll relax too.

    2. Following distance- habits hereabouts tempt me to carry a can of carpet tacks to sling out my window. Especially hate getting tail gated ten miles over the limit. But same as above benefits for city-speed driving. Better sight lines too.

    3. Get with your State Legislator for an RCW forbidding a single touch screen where a driver can even think about it. And free conversion of everybody’s dashboard to knobs and buttons.

    Bus driving, got used to hand-held push button mikes, always felt safe. Same, I think, for such phones driving cars- except last five years, all cell phones are “smart”, so really stupid to have one even turned on.

    4. Always favored license renewal every year, little or no rule-book, but half an hour with a State Police instructor. Who’ll have choice to give you either a renewed driver’s license or a pass valid on all surface and water transit nationwide.

    Insurance rates will plummet, clear roads will make transit faster, and passenger demand will rise so high that all projects will accelerate to point where even drivers who passed the driving test will choose the transit pass.

    Your turn, David.

    Mark Dublin

  2. While walking yesterday, I observed one driver going at least 50 mph down Lake Washington Blvd. near Seward Park, and another blatantly running a red light in the U-district. Some people think Christmas means they get to drive however they want, and ignore all the rules.

  3. Interesting point about all sides of an intersection being legal crosswalks. I’m sure it’s on the Washington driver’s tests and such, but with how many new people that’ve moved here in the last ten to twenty years I don’t think it’s safe to assume even a plurality of drivers know that, because I know that in at least three other states crossing at anything but an explicitly marked crosswalk is jaywalking and drivers are not legally required to give you right of way.

    1. Drivers always have to yield to pedestrians. Even when the pedestrian is jaywalking. It is illegal to use your car as a weapon, and the enforcement of the law is best left to law enforcement officers.

      1. It’s more than just yield though. What is implied by Ness’s comment is some explanation for drivers just swerving around pedestrians or intimidating them back to the sidewalk. If someone’ is jaywalking the driver thinks they just have a duty to not kill them. But if they’re crossing legally the driver realizes (well, sometimes realizes) they have to stop completely and wait.

      2. To hell with the ‘righteousness’ of the pedestrian when they’re jaywalking.

        When I’m deciding to cross mid-block, I’m counting on the driver to drive past me, not prove his/her superior ‘politeness quotient’ by stopping.

        There are plenty of times I’ve had to avert my gaze, or feign ‘not looking to cross’ just to get those drivers to move past me.
        Those drivers scare the hell out of me.

  4. Once we have a critical mass of autonomous cars, it will become much easier to cross the street, since the robots will be aware of the crosswalk law, and will obey it. Until then, we’d best get the city to paint explicit crosswalks as much as possible.

  5. If I were king I would abolish right on red signal. I’ve seen too many situations where people feel that they *must* turn right (or left on a one way street.) Of course they don’t care if they camp out in the crosswalk in order to do it. I know the argument is that “it saves a tiny bit of gas.” I believe that the drivers’ manual says you may turn on right if it is safe to do so. Many people ignore that last part.

    1. Right-on red also allows drivers to turn right on red, then quickly make a U-turn, to avoid waiting for a long red light, during periods of light traffic. I did it once in SODO because the light was taking forever to change, I was in a hurry, and there was nobody around (it was 8:00 on a Saturday morning).

      If our traffic lights could just change more quickly, none of these crazy shenanigans would be necessary. There is absolutely no reason for any street to have a green light over a minute long at 8:00 on a Saturday morning.

      1. The reasoning behind long light times is also about pedestrian safety. Mobility-challenged persons need enough time to safely cross the street.

    2. As a pedestrian, I prefer right on red. Whether you turn right on green or a red, at most intersections you will be turning through a crosswalk where pedestrians have a green. Cars turning on green are often going fast as they enter the turn. Cars turning on a red tend to come to a stop before turning. I prefer the red turns.

      1. I’m a pedestrian and right on red doesn’t bother me.

        I did have my worst near miss in a long time yesterday around 7pm. I was at Broadway & John and a few people were behind me. The walk sign came on, I started walking, and the car in the next lane made a fast right right in front of me. If I had gone two more steps he would have had to make a sudden stop — which i don’t trust they’ll succeed — or knock me down. A guy behind me said, “Woah, that’s a serious Domino’s delivery.” I don’t know if it was or not, but it was the most blatantly illegal and dangerous thing I’ve encountered in years. Of course, no right on red wouldn’t have made a difference because it was green.

  6. Not sure I agree with your caption of your lede picture that the driver of the green Prius is “doing it right.” That car is stopped at least half a car length behind the stop line for that lane, reducing the driver’s visibility of crossing pedestrians and traffic and potentially contributing to a backup into the intersection of 5th and Spring.

  7. Can anybody comment on driver training in the average high school? Or do schools still do it? Because in addition to lack of common courtesy and manslaughter avoidance, I really think that many automobile owners never learn to drive.

    Car design: often if not always, vision is terrible. Since rear door windows narrowed to slits to make the car look wicked including stuck in traffic, I wonder how many motorists think “shoulder check” is out of hockey. David, you know about side-mirrors.

    Though for trolleybuses where you have to see the ropes to stay on the wire, tempting to take bus to a body-shop and add a window on your own dime. Maybe “sooooo 1976” but side-cameras die faster and more expensive than mirrors. Worse, idea that moving eyes side to side means you’re sneaky also wrong.

    Uh…Does Metro still teach that stuff, David, or do you just have to remember from high school? Where all of this fits in is that habit of all-around awareness is best defense against hitting a pedestrian or cyclist. Including knowing what-all you can do to avoid one and not get demolished yourself.

    And Lazarus, terrific point about state of mind and attitude. If you’re going make driving a contest- bad idea because winning is distraction from surviving- word to former game show host living on Pennsylvania Avenue- make it a game of your own driving skill, giving yourself points for slick unseen avoidance.

    Not letting the other driver even see you not hitting him no matter how justified. Or even ostentatiously avoiding him. If he does see you in your moment of victory, smile and give him a thumbs up, or one of those thumb-and – first finger waves meaning, “Good driving, buddy!” Wonder if there’d be any audience for a “Close Call Derby?”

    Remember: Your insurance company bats last. And your agent is Ken Griffey moonlighting.

    Mark

  8. I take issue with the word ‘polite’. I see drivers think that they are being ‘polite’ when their actions create traffic hazards because they don’t behave in legal and expected ways.

    Examples:

    – A driver who skips a turn at an all-way stop. The act confuses all of the other drivers and pedestrians at the intersection.

    – A driver who stops at a green light because another car is slowing down and getting ready to stop at the side street.

    – A driver who won’t pull into a signalized intersection with a green light to make a left, because there is oncoming traffic. When the light changes, everyone must freeze to see what this driver will do — and cars behind this driver also may swerve around the car at the last second endangering pedestrians.

    – A driver who stops 40 feet from a traffic signal stop bar just in case pedestrians are going to use ia crosswalk — so the sensor doesn’t know that they are there.

    The word ‘legal’ or ‘obedient’ is a much better goal. Being polite to one person can easily also be impolite for many more.

    1. I’m particularly annoyed at right turn on red / right turn at anything drivers that pull all the way up to the edge of traffic, blocking any way to get across without walking out into traffic, then politely motion for you to commit suicide in front of them.

    2. And this is why the word “polite” does not appear anywhere in the post. “Respectful” conveys what I want to say much more accurately.

  9. > Cars aren’t a sustainable solution for the majority of urban travel, but they will always be the best tool for certain trips.

    I’d agree with that, I own two cars yet commute to work 100% on transit 5 days a week. Wife uses a car during the week for short trips, and I drive it on the weekend. The other one spends most of its time parked up, but it comes in handy sometimes – for example I occasionally travel for work, where it’ll get parked at the airport for a week, and it also has a trailer hitch – I’ll go rent a trailer from uhaul if I need to move stuff like furniture.

    Now, onto peoples driving habits..

    The main obviation I can make about how people drive in Alaska and the PNW (two parts of the US I’ve lived in) is that people’s driving habits are sloppy because the police largely ignore the bending of rules or things can be considered dangerous or endangering others, or simply bad behavior.

    Live in a country where (as I have) the police will write out tickets for the smallest infringements and you’ll also find that people drive a lot more responsibly. But its a fine line for the police between enforcing safety and getting labeled as revenue gatherers that could be better spending their time dealing with bigger crimes. Personally I think they could do better on some of the dangerous stuff I see people doing on freeways (weaving, speeding, cutting across lanes to make an exit, unsafe following distances, list goes on), and around town – mainly aggressive driving (why is everyone driving like they’re racing home to piss on an oven fire?), speeding on residential streets (how much time do you save ripping down my street to get to the end? Not much, yet the risk of an incident goes way up) and running red lights seems to be the norms.

    1. This is why we need car sharing in more neighborhoods. So you aren’t forced to own a car (and buy/rent a place store it every single day) just for the five times a year you really need it.

  10. If I were when of the world, I’d force car companies to edit their commercials to reflect reasonable driving in actual (generally rotten) traffic conditions. How many times do you see an ad that has the car driving by its lonesome downtown in midday, not a care in the world, car never stopping. Yes, safety features are important to promote, but frankly what is promoted is a sense of entitlement and at best inattentive driving.

    It’s a little bit like those old cigarette ads that promoted a cool lifestyle instead a real one where you hacked up a lung.

      1. They did this same thing for other dangerous substances ads. No more joe the camel ads. We just need equality.

        Personally any car ad advertising speed should be banned. It not a race car they are selling or the owner is allowed to do. .

  11. Anybody else think these rules are a shade numerous and complicated for average driver, local or visiting, to intuit without a lot more hands-on training than most people ever get? I think driver training in general should be a lot longer and more intensive than is now the case.

    But another thing badly needed is training how do deal with drivers, who for whatever reason, aren’t doing what they’e supposed to. Police officers I’ve spoken with confirm that not a force in the State has enough officers to pull over everybody breaking a rule.

    So I think that for US conditions, to keep a license, every driver should get road-tested for at least once a year for the kind of road skills necessary to avoid trouble of any kind, especially ability to deal with both sudden danger, and as you’ve put it, David, disrespect- without costing myself any further concern over it.

    But word to anybody walking in illegally in front of me when my car is moving. Manners were developed by clan chieftains carrying long, sharp blades and short ugly tempers, whose culture put their lives in serious danger if they backed down from a sudden unintentional quarrel.

    Also serious complication if they needed their opponent of the moment to help kill somebody else in fifteen. Luckily, this is 700 years after the 14th century. So I’m confined to two really unchivalrous motives. Automatic $250 deductible for one more new front fender. And $10 for Brown Bear car wash.

    Still and all, old folk wisdom in every culture: Don’t Piss Off the Polite.

    Mark

  12. Seattle would Save more pedestrian lives if they had actual enforcement of the law that says pedestrians have the right of way. Instead of lowering the speed limit!

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