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driving concerns

I keep hearing about drivers’ responsibilities toward pedestrians, but what legal responsibilities do pedestrians have? Do they always have the right-of-way? – Iris, Toronto

When you step off the curb to cross the street, you don’t always have the right-of-way, police said.

“There’s a general misunderstanding that pedestrians have the right-of-way always – and that’s not the case,” said Sean Shapiro, a constable with the traffic services division of the Toronto Police Service. “So, if a pedestrian steps out in front of a vehicle that has no opportunity to reasonably stop, they’re failing to yield and they’re actually responsible.”

When don’t pedestrians have the right to cross? In Ontario, for instance, the law states that if you’re a pedestrian, you have to follow pedestrian signals at traffic lights. That means you can start to cross only when the walking pedestrian symbol is lit, and you shouldn’t start to cross once the orange hand starts flashing or the numerical countdown display has begun, though you can finish crossing if you’ve already started. If there’s a marked crosswalk, you have to cross within it.

Breaking any of those rules comes with a $50 fine, Shapiro said. Last year, Toronto Police issued 732 tickets for those offences.

Also, at pedestrian crossovers – that’s what Ontario calls dedicated crosswalks that aren’t at intersections – you can’t start crossing if the driver won’t be able to stop in time. That’s also true if you’re crossing in the middle of a block where there’s no crosswalk – which is legal in Ontario, as long as the area is clear, Shapiro said.

The rules vary by province and by city, but generally, you can’t cross unless vehicles can reasonably stop for you. You also have to obey signals.

For instance, Montreal police issued 3,287 tickets for pedestrians disobeying signals and signs in 2023.

Some cities, including Vancouver and Edmonton, have their own pedestrian bylaws that ban jaywalking (crossing between intersections).

If you’re breaking those rules, you don’t have the legal right-of-way to cross. But once you’re on the road, drivers have to try to stop for you – as long as they’ve seen you. They can’t speed up or get dangerously close to teach you a lesson, Shapiro said.

“[As a driver], if you have any ability, your obligation is to avoid [a collision] if you see them – and even to make an attempt, even if you fail at that attempt,” Shapiro said. “But if someone walks out right in front of you, you [might be unable to stop your car in time]. There’s nowhere to go. The pedestrian is clearly responsible for their part in that interaction, and we’re going to hold them responsible.”

If you cross illegally and get hit, you could face a ticket – even if you were injured, Shapiro said.

“There’s a belief somehow that [pedestrians struck while crossing illegally] are the victims – well, no, they’re the injured party, but they’re not the victims,” Shapiro said. “They caused the collision.”

Never assume

We checked with police in several cities. In 2023, there were 29 pedestrian deaths and 26 serious injuries in Toronto. There were 15 pedestrian deaths in Montreal, six in Edmonton and 11 in Vancouver.

Just as drivers have a responsibility to watch for and avoid pedestrians, pedestrians have a responsibility to make sure they can cross safely, Shapiro said.

“If you step out in front of a moving vehicle with the assumption it’s going to respond, you are taking your life in your own hands. They may be distracted and you don’t know until it’s too late,” Shapiro said. “You have to assume that the person behind the wheel is out to lunch. You have to assume that unless you’ve made eye contact and you see them stop in front of you or they slow down reasonably, that they don’t know you’re there.”

The behaviour of drivers and pedestrians should be predictable on the road; drivers shouldn’t be speeding and pedestrians should make sure that drivers can see them, said Lewis Smith, manager of national projects with the Canada Safety Council, an Ottawa-based non-profit.

“Interactions between road users don’t have to be adversarial, and a little consideration goes a long way,” Smith said.

At night, dawn and dusk, pedestrians should wear bright or reflective clothing, and walk with a flashlight to make it more likely that drivers will see them, Toronto police’s Shapiro said.

“These are things to help you be noticed, but they’re by no means a guarantee,” Shapiro said. “And we’ve been criticized in the past for giving pedestrians an unrealistic sense of security [by suggesting] that if you wear bright clothing, you’ll be okay. It’s only additional help at possibly being seen.”

Pedestrians should also be looking at oncoming vehicles when crossing – and not at their phones, Shapiro said.

“You’ve got to be wearing blinders not to realize that [pedestrians] have a responsibility as well as the drivers,” Shapiro said. “We have drivers that suck at driving. We have drivers that have their faces buried in the phone when they’re driving. We are focused on changing [driver] behaviour, but we can’t be everywhere, and we’re certainly not seeing a dramatic change in their behaviour.”

In an argument between a 1,500-kilogram car and a 75-kilogram pedestrian, the pedestrian is pretty much guaranteed to lose. Best to be cautious, no matter which party has the right-of-way.

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