Q: Recently my friend was stopped by a police officer for crossing Santa Monica Boulevard on the Third Street Promenade in a marked crosswalk while the red hand was flashing. My friend said he had plenty of time to finish crossing the street before the cross traffic would have had a green light, but he was still stopped by the police officer who was standing on the corner. I see everybody do this every day. I, along with many of the people I have spoken to regarding this, believed it was only illegal if you cross when the red hand is solid. Can you explain the pedestrian crossing laws? Do Santa Monica crossing laws differ from other cities?
A: I would like to start by first defining a pedestrian crossing or crosswalk and explain what the displayed signals mean. A “pedestrian crossing” or “crosswalk” is a designated point on a road at which some means are employed to assist pedestrians wishing to cross the street. They are designed to keep pedestrians together where they can be seen by motorists, and where they can cross safely across the flow of vehicular traffic. Crosswalks are most commonly found at intersections, but may also be at other points on busy roads that would otherwise be considered unsafe to cross without the assistance of a crosswalk due to vehicular traffic, speed or road widths. They are also commonly found in parts of the city where a large number of pedestrians are attempting to cross, such as in shopping areas (as in your friend’s case). Crosswalks are also found in areas where vulnerable road users are commonly crossing, such as in school zones.
Oftentimes pedestrians are confused because the flashing “DONT WALK” display appears before they finish crossing the street. Usually, there is nothing wrong with the traffic signal’s timing, there is just a misunderstanding of what the pedestrian signal means. The WALKING PERSON symbol or “WALK” signal really means that it is the pedestrian’s turn to begin crossing the crosswalk. However, pedestrians should always be on the lookout for motorists who are turning right or left across their crosswalk, or who may run the red light. The flashing red UPRAISED HAND symbol or “DONT WALK” signal, really means “don’t start” and if you have stepped into the street during the WALK interval, there should be enough time to finish crossing the street before the steady UPRAISDED HAND or “DONT WALK” appears and the signal turns green for the cross traffic. When the steady “DONT WALK” appears you should not begin crossing or be in the street. At this point you should have already completed crossing the crosswalk.
The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) provides guidance that at least seven seconds of “WALK” time should be provided so that pedestrians have adequate opportunity to leave the curb before the clearance interval (flashing red symbol or “DONT WALK”) begins. The flashing red symbol or “DONT WALK” interval is the pedestrian clearance interval. It is similar in concept to the yellow light clearance interval for motor vehicles. Pedestrians should be provided sufficient time to cross the street without being rushed.
The California Vehicle Code section 21456 VC reads as follows: Whenever a pedestrian control signal shows the words “WALK” or “WAIT” or “DONT WALK” or other approved symbol is in place, the signal shall indicate as follows: (a) “WALK” or approved “Walking Person” symbol. A pedestrian facing the signal may proceed across the roadway in the direction of the signal, but shall yield the right-of-way to vehicles lawfully within the intersection at the time that signal is first shown. (b) Flashing or steady “DONT WALK” or “WAIT” or approved “Upraised Hand” symbol. No pedestrian shall start to cross the roadway in the direction of the signal, but any pedestrian who has partially completed crossing shall proceed to a sidewalk or safety zone or otherwise leave the roadway while the “WAIT” or “DONT WALK” or approved “Upraised Hand” symbol is showing.
In conclusion, when your friend began to cross the street, the pedestrian control signal was flashing a red upright hand. Although, he may have had time to cross the street, he was in violation of 21456(b) VC. The pedestrian control signals and crosswalks are in place for the safety of both the pedestrians and motorists.
Santa Monica has a city municipal code section, 3.12.330 SMMC — Pedestrians’ right to the use of the roadway. The definition of this municipal code is no pedestrian shall cross a roadway other than by a crosswalk in a business district. Many streets in our residential portion of the city are not marked with crosswalks but you can legally cross at them when safe. However, in any area in Santa Monica considered to be a business district you may only cross the street inside a marked cross walk.
Just in case you forget, Santa Monica has conveniently installed placards on many of our pedestrian crossing signals briefly explaining the symbols’ meaning. I know it can be time consuming and at times seem pointless, but please take the extra few moments and use the designated crosswalk.
Remember: “Be Safe, Be Seen.”
This column was prepared by NRO Scott McGowan (Beat 6: Montana Avenue to Interstate 10, 20th Street to Centinela Avenue). He can be reached at (424) 200-0686 or firstname.lastname@example.org.