Crosswalks, like ones in downtown Birmingham, can sometimes lead to confusion as to who has the right of way.

Crosswalks, like ones in downtown Birmingham, can sometimes lead to confusion as to who has the right of way.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Crosswalk confusion plagues local downtown districts

By: Sarah Wojcik, Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published April 20, 2021


BIRMINGHAM/ROYAL OAK — In vibrant, bustling downtowns, crosswalks are a commodity.

But as familiar as they are, not everyone agrees on the rules and etiquette that exist between pedestrians and drivers when they meet.

Birmingham resident Robyn Whitelaw has run into that conflict more than a few times. She takes regular walks downtown with friends.

“It seems they all have different ideas of what the signs mean,” Whitelaw said. “One friend believes she can walk into traffic and the cars have to stop. I’ve noticed a lot of people seem to think that. I’m at the other end of the spectrum. I think it just reminds cars to slow down and look for pedestrians. Pedestrians should not be entering the intersection if a car is approaching.”

So, who’s right about the great yield debate?

While Detroit is the Motor City, motorists must yield to pedestrians who have set foot on any part of the painted perpendicular lines that denote a crosswalk, per state law.

Local officials agree, however, that there’s some confusion surrounding the signage, and some pedestrians like to test the limits and walk into oncoming traffic — not a smart move.

“The actual language of the law says that (the) car has to stop for pedestrians who are in the crosswalk on their side of the roadway,” said Cmdr. Scott Grewe, of the Birmingham Police Department. “I think a lot of people have the impression that a car has to stop for pedestrians waiting to cross, but that’s not true. You can’t step out in front of a vehicle and expect them to stop.”

In fact, Grewe explained that the cars approaching a crosswalk have to stop for pedestrians only if they’re already in the crosswalk, and even then, the pedestrian needs to be on the same half of the roadway as the car. For instance, if someone is crossing the street and they’re standing on the southbound lanes of traffic, a vehicle heading northbound wouldn’t be required to stop.

Many downtown crosswalks have neon signage posted in the middle of the street depicting a STOP sign, the silhouette of a person and the message, “State law: STOP for pedestrians within crosswalk.” Some crosswalks have lighted signals that regulate motorist-pedestrian activity.

Royal Oak City Engineer Holly Donoghue said she generally decides to “not chance it” and waits until traffic is mostly clear to traverse crosswalks within the busy downtown Royal Oak area, where city offices are located.

“We have several traffic signals with crossings on them. Those are the nicer, easier ways to cross the street,” she said. “Next summer, we’re planning to install a pedestrian refuge island at Sixth (and Main) streets, so pedestrians can at least get to the middle of the road and pause during a long crossing.”

Without the safety net of signage or signals, downtown crosswalks do become an issue in the city of Royal Oak, Donoghue said. She can recall witnessing a pedestrian press both hands onto the hood of a turning vehicle, as well as a collision between a member of the Police Department and a distracted driver.

In the winter, she said, the signs become a hazard for the city, with frequent incidents of motorists mowing them down or snow plows catching them, so the city takes them down during the most inclement months.

“They get pretty torn up,” she said. “I think people just need to be extra cautious in the city.”

Confusion over the law can sometimes turn into a battle of the right of way, and that’s not only a contentious situation between walkers and motorists — it’s a dangerous one.

“I’ve seen many people start crossing the intersection even when a car is approaching,” Whitelaw said of her walks in downtown Birmingham. “(I saw) a dad and son who walked into the intersection at Brown and Pierce without looking for traffic. To them, the sign was a stop sign for cars. This dad, basically, is teaching his son that cars will stop for them.”

Royal Oak Community Engagement Specialist Judy Davids said she has several tricks to prepare for navigating crosswalks in the downtown area, which she often does to grab lunch or walk to work.

“I try to make myself as big as possible by swinging my arms, and I definitely make eye contact,” Davids said. “Don’t count on people seeing you. I never trust anybody ever to stop.”

She added that pedestrians should be extra vigilant because the Royal Oak downtown draws many visitors from other cities without downtowns, so they are less likely to be concentrating on watching for pedestrians crossing the street than they are concentrating on getting to their destination.

One idea that ultimately did not make it through the discussion process, Davids said, was to purchase neon vests for city employees, because so many employees do walk around the downtown area for business or recreation.