Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpProgressive Arlington is getting more pedestrian-friendly. But this may be too much of a good thing.

Several times recently I’ve found myself at the wheel of my car exchanging dirty looks with a pedestrian who has meandered absent-mindedly into a crosswalk, forcing me to slam on my brakes.

In Westover, the block below where Washington Boulevard crosses McKinley Street is broken up by not one but two pedestrian crosswalks marked with loud yellow plastic signs reading “State Law: Yield to Pedestrians within Crosswalk.”

Now, this is open to interpretation. What sane driver would fail to yield to a live human being on foot inside the crosswalk and plow on through? But when did authorities relieve walkers of the duty their mothers taught them in kindergarten to look both ways before crossing and wait for a traffic lull?

Somehow, these state signs have persuaded pedestrians that those white-paint stripes constitute a heavy-armored shield against danger from a two-ton automobile. I see walkers meander out engrossed in talk with companions or scanning their smartphone without even a glance at those of us approaching behind a steering wheel at 30 mph.

At Westover, there are often idling vehicles waiting to park, which obstruct the oncoming drivers’ view of casual strollers who dart into the crosswalk while exercising their “right” to force me to an abrupt halt between stoplights.

To assure I’m not a misinformed curmudgeon, I ran the question by Randy Dittberner, a regional traffic engineer for the Virginia Transportation Department based in Fairfax. He quoted to me from the Virginia code, which does indeed require drivers to yield to protect the pedestrian right of way, even in the middle of a block. But “it assigns responsibility to both pedestrians and drivers,” he said.“Pedestrians are not to enter or cross an intersection in disregard of approaching traffic,” the code says. “A pedestrian shouldn’t force adriver to make an unsafe maneuver to avoid a collision,” Dittberner added. “It raises difficult questions of reasonableness in enforcement, such as whether a driver had enough time to stop” which is the province of the police, not VDOT.

The Arlington police publish the portion of the Virginia Criminal and Traffic Manual that reiterates the joint responsibilities of drivers and pedestrians. In “safety tips,” the police say, “Be considerate of the driver who has complied with the law and yielded the right-of-way. Cross the street as expeditiously as possible.”

Interestingly, as Dittberner notes, there are other communities around the country where pedestrian rights are given even higher priority. Virginia law requires signs to say drivers must “yield” rather than the tougher word “stop.” The county and VDOT work together to decide where to install signs.

The law, as updated as recently as March, gives Arlington—as well as Loudoun, Fairfax, Alexandria and Falls Church—the right to post signs and fine offending drivers $100-$500.

My friend Johnny Brooks, a retired phone technician who researched the issue after he got burned from a police sting operation driving through Bethesda, Md., thinks the jurisdictions post the notices to gain revenue. “Those yellow signs give pedestrians a false sense of security— like `The state protects me, so I don’t have to be smart enough to know the law,’ ” he said. “It’s another example of people looking to the state instead of doing things for themselves.”