Sunday, February 14, 2010

Right of Way - Way to be Dead Right

One of the constants that is echoed time and time again when I am detailing the cause of collisions is the fabled, "Right of Way." I am asked, "Who had the right of way?" or I am told that, "Person 'A' had the right of way."

My response is always the same, "Right of way is a terrible argument to stand on from a hospital bed." Truthfully, the people who stand behind right of way most often are our most vulnerable road users...cyclists and pedestrians, which is why the argument from a hospital bed is for the lucky ones.

These are the same groups that scream loud and repeatedly, "Drivers don't see us, drivers don't care about us, drivers tool around in their own worlds, drivers ignore our rights to the road."

So, if you know all of the above, what makes you think that drivers heed the right of way. If they don't see you, care about you or ignore you...why in the world would you bet your life on three little words?

A quick look at the Highway Traffic Act shows that the words 'right of way' appear 18 times (26 times if you count titles). To put it into perspective yield appears 29 times and stop over 100 times.

To give the perfect example, I posed this question on Twitter Friday afternoon.
"Pop quiz. If four cars arrive at an all way stop from the four different directions at the exact same time, who goes first?"
The answers were varied and thoughtful. Some seemed reasonable and some were close, but no one actually got the real answer. There is no answer. The HTA doesn't deal with this situation. The act says that when two cars meet at an intersection at the same time the driver on the left must yield the right of way to the driver on the right.

In the scenario that I posed, all drivers had someone to their left and right...all would have to yield. The result...stalemate. By the answer, "DuncansCityRide
@TrafficServices Answer - They must all get out of their cars and walk to the nearest bike shop!"

What you have to do is simple...COMMUNICATE! You have to talk to each other. Flash your highbeams, signal, wave, get eye contact....what ever it takes to cooperatively determine who is going to go and when. Most people are afraid to make a decision and will simply pass it off to the next person to choose. (You will know if there is an "A" type personality in the group...they stop look at what is happening and go.)

So back to another problem with right of way. Let's say you are a pedestrian. You have a walk signal and there is a green light for your direction of travel and you are going to walk within a crosswalk. You have the all powerful "right of way" so you go, like most pedestrians do....complete with all the confidence of the RIGHT OF WAY!!!!

What you didn't do is take into account that there is a car coming from your right. The driver of that car just had a heart attack and the car is not going to stop until it slams into something. Because of your "Right of Way" you never took the time to look and be aware of your surroundings. If you had, you more than likely would of seen the car coming, you would have recognized that the car was travelling faster than it should be towards a red light, you would have calculated that the car and yourself will meet at the exact same time, in the crosswalk, with your green light and your walk sign. So start yelling..."I have the right of way, I have the right of way, I have the..." you get the picture.

Now you are in the hospital, if you're lucky, and you stand up on your soapbox (if you can) talking about the right of way...good for you and your ideals.

Rewind. Before you step onto the roadway with the "right of way", you look, you see the car coming you realize that you will get hit if that car doesn't stop so you watch the car travel past you and you can see your family and friends and tell them about what you saw.

The Highway Traffic Act is great for regulating traffic flow and giving us direction as to what should happen. But some people make mistakes and some others just don't care about your safety. Those are the times that you hope to see a police officer that saw the offence.

So what do you do to protect yourself?
Use our roadways like no one sees you>You need to see everyone>So look, continue to look and be aware.
Obey all the laws in place to protect you>Trust that your fellow road users will do the same.
Be predictable, be seen, be cooperative>The goal is to get where you want to go safely.
COMMUNICATE with each other.

Wouldn't you rather give up your right of way than your life?
The right of way is only words until it is actually your right to take safely. You may be right about your right of way, but you could be dead right taking it...literally.


  1. Thanks for the great insights, Sgt Burrows. You were so right in pointing out that, as with everything else in life, "communication" is the key to being successful. I don't know why most people don't realize that this applies to our roadways as much as it does to anywhere else we happen to be. "Right of way" only becomes relevant AFTER the accident. In my humble opinion, the key is not to ever NEED to have a discussion about who had the Right Of Way. After all, there are better things to talk about. But not on your cell phone while you're driving ;-)

  2. Maybe the punishment for breaking the rules should be more harsh, so the ones that do not care about pedestrian lives might care about what happens to them, not some minor ticket.

  3. Thanks for the comment John.
    The manner that our penalties are laid out is actually pretty good. When you think of the incredible number of vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians interacting in our city daily, there really are a small number of negative ones. That is due to a shared system of good human nature and cooperation and solid understanding and fear of breaking rules; both legal and moral.

    For the few exceptions the gradient level of penalties available to the courts are excellent when applied properly and respected.

  4. I cannot believe the "blame the pedestrian" talk coming from the Toronto Police. How well does this work for victims of other crimes?

    I agree there are careless pedestrians. However, I am also aware that drivers have become much less vigilant when it comes to pedestrians at intersections. If you posted undercover police at intersections, it would quickly become obvious that most drivers do not stop at the wide white line when making a right turn. This is likely more common in the surburbs where there are fewer pedestrians. Likewise, you're lucky to see a "rolling stop" at stop signs - nowadays many don’t bother to slow down before going through. I have never seen enforcement of these infractions even when police are around. Maybe you should have a "safety blitz" targeting unsafe drivers at intersections instead?

    Telling pedestrians to "make eye contact" before crossing is ridiculous. Can you make eye contact with a driver turning left towards you across three lanes of traffic? If a pedestrian is in the middle of crossing an intersection and a car starts driving at them, the pedestrian has done something wrong? Motorized vehicles can move a lot faster than pedestrians and it is impossible for pedestrians to look in all directions at once.

    More enforcement of traffic laws is needed, including speeding on city streets (average speeds in suburbs are ~ 20km/h over, with many going 30km/h over). When people drive much faster than the limit it is more difficult for pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers to cross, make right or left turns, etc. Despite police blaming "jaywalkers" for most pedestrians/vehicle collisions, if you were regular pedestrians you‘d know that crossing between intersections can be safer and is sometimes the only realistic option. Pedestrians could cross more safely if the speed limits were actually enforced - people could more accurately judge the time required to cross the street. Do police take into account a vehicle's speed if a pedestrian is hit crossing between intersections? Or is it standard practice to blame the jaywalker and not even consider the possibility the driver may have been going too fast? Do you believe that pedestrians should have to walk hundreds of metres to an intersection and back to cross streets in the suburbs? While extremely busy streets may be too dangerous to cross, please don't always blame the jaywalker!

    What are the results of investigations into the recent pedestrian deaths/injuries - how many drivers have been charged? This information should be made public. When the police are constantly putting the onus on pedestrians, it leads drivers to believe there will be no serious consequences to them if they hit a pedestrian. This will only lead to more dangerous driving. Please read this comment on a National Post article about pedestrian deaths - unfortunately, this thinking does not seem uncommon among drivers and some police officers:

    Jan 29 2010
    The mathmatical hiccup is how few pedestrians actually get hit!
    Most of them think THEY own the road over the cars. That the cars ALL have to watch out for THEM on the road.
    Just watch once in a while. See how many people don't even look for cars before crossing at a crosswalk of something.
    And if they see a car coming, they stop right in front of it. Instead of moving out of the way of something that might kill them, they get this stupid look on their faces and stand in front of a moving vehicle and stare stupidly at the driver.
    Drivers are in no way perfect, but pedestrians seem to expect everyone else to watch out for them.
    The fact that more pedestrians don't ket killed is a testimonial to the fact that drivers are far more responsible. … There's ONLY one way a pedestrian can get hit by a car in the road. That's by stepping out in front of a moving vehicle! The road is for CARS! If you're stupid enough not to watch for cars before stepping out, you're just as much to blame,if not more so, than the driver who hits you.

  5. Hey Anonymous. Thanks for the time you have taken to comment.
    I have been thinking of how to best respond to your comment. I have come to the realization, that your comments speak for themselves and anything I could say would only take away from them.

  6. I have recently come upon a sign at a street crossing, which says: "Watch for Pedestrians Lawfully in the Intersection".

    No doubt, it was placed there with good intentions. Only, that to me, it implies that a driver does NOT (necessarily) has to watch out for pedestrians, who may be crossing the road carelessly or un-lawfully.

    Until I hear (or read) in the media that a pedestrian ran over a car and killed the driver, we must put the primary responsibility on the drivers.

    This is not to say, that a driver would automatically be at fault, if he or she ran over a careless pedestrian. I simply mean to say, that it's the car that have the mass and speed to kill. As such, drivers must be extra vigilant in watching out for pedestrians, regardless whether they have the right of way or not.

    Of course, I don't mean to absolve the pedestrians from their responsibilites. Often, they are just as guilty as the habitually agressive drivers.

    More often than not, I'm a driver. I would not sleep well if, God forbid, I ran over a careless pedestrian, however much I had the right of way.

    "Right of way" sound good legally, but in practice, in my view, it gives no one the right to be wrong.

  7. Great post Alex.
    I agree with your analysis of the if the pedestrian isn't there lawfully do we not have to watch for them?
    I think that drivers do have an incredible responsibility on them to not hit pedestrians and do everything that they can do to avoid conflict.
    I also think that the pedestrians have an even greater responsibility to themselves to only cross when it is safe and lawful, since they have more to lose.
    I love the idea of getting the habitually bad drivers off the road to make the streets safer for all of us.
    Thanks again for the great post!