NYPD and DOT Back Bill to Expand Right of Way for Pedestrians

Legislation proposed by Public Advocate Letitia James would ensure that pedestrians who enter during the "Pedestrian Change Interval" have the right of way against turning vehicles. Image: DOT
Intro 997 would ensure that pedestrians who enter a crosswalk during the flashing “Pedestrian Change Interval” have the right of way under New York City law. Image: DOT

NYPD and DOT both support a bill to give pedestrians more legal protection under the city’s Right of Way Law.

The Right of Way Law took effect in August 2014 and made it a misdemeanor to hit a pedestrian or cyclist who has the right of way. But district attorneys and the police department often decline to bring charges under the law, citing a traffic rule that pedestrians who enter the crosswalk once the “Don’t Walk” warning begins to flash do not have the right of way. Compounding the problem, the flashing phase has become longer and the steady “Walk” phase has become shorter at many intersections where the city has installed countdown clocks.

Last fall, Public Advocate Letitia James sponsored Intro 997 to remedy the situation by extending the right of way to everyone in the crosswalk during both the steady “Walk” phase and the flashing phase.

In testimony today to the City Council transportation committee, James called the current rules a “fatal flaw” and “counterintuitive.” She argued that Intro 997 would bring the law in line with the standard practice of most New Yorkers. “At a time when our city is so rightfully concerned about addressing these avoidable deaths and injuries, fixing this problem seems like an obvious and important way to make meaningful progress,” James said.

DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo and Inspector Dennis Fulton of the NYPD Transportation Bureau expressed support for the bill, which Fulton said has “been the subject of robust discussions” between the James’s office, the City Council and the relevant city agencies. Russo told the committee that the bill would “align the law with the acknowledged reality on our streets and our concern for pedestrians’ safety.”

Russo described a hypothetical in which two pedestrians are crossing the street. What if a slower person started walking at the beginning of the crossing phase while a faster-paced walker entered once the flashing “Don’t Walk” signal began, and they were hit simultaneously by a driver? “A driver who approaches the intersection to turn left sees two pedestrians in the exact same location in the crosswalk,” Russo said. “Under current law, one pedestrian has the right of way while the other does not.”

Russo opposed other pedestrian safety legislation on the table. Intro. 912 would establish a “curb extensions program” within DOT mandating the installation of five curb extensions per borough each year at high-priority locations.

Russo argued that the legislation would limit DOT’s flexibility to use all the safety treatments at its disposal. “Curb extensions are just one tool among many,” he said. “Curb extensions may not address the specific issues contributing to crashes at a particular location, and they are rarely the most cost- or time-effective option due to the complexity of our underground infrastructure.”

Advocates argued that while curb extensions are indeed one of many possible pedestrian safety treatments, the legal mandate would still be helpful. Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White said curb extensions could be done with low-cost materials like paint and flexible posts, avoiding the time and expense of digging up a street corner. “It’s all of the above, it’s not either-or in the era of Vision Zero,”  he said. “[Curb extensions] don’t have to be capital-intensive.”