Heads up, inattentive drivers: the Sebastopol Police Department is planning a series of sting operations in town, focusing on pedestrian safety. They’ll be doing speeding and stop sign enforcement, but the main focus of this new operation will be crosswalk safety.
“Basically we need drivers here in town to slow down and watch out for pedestrians, especially now that school is starting,” said Sebastopol police lieutenant Gregory DeVore.
The main method the department will be using is crosswalk stings.
“An employee of the police department, who is in plain clothes, will go out, and they’re going to walk back and forth across crosswalks,” DeVore said. “They’re going to do it legally — they’re not going to just jump out in front of cars. But when it’s legal and safe to cross, they’re going to start crossing in the crosswalk, and if a driver fails to yield to them, we’re going to have a couple of motorcycle officers sitting very nearby, and the offending driver is going to get stopped.”
DeVore says they’ll be running crosswalk stings on all the main corridors in town, focusing on those crosswalks that get the most complaints.
“Some of the areas that we really get complaints about are the crosswalk in front of the post office; the crosswalk on Petaluma Avenue at the trail. We also get a lot of complaints about the main intersection in town, at 116 and 12. Next in line would be the crosswalk up by Rite Aid, going across North Main Street, as well as the crosswalk across Gravenstein South, down by Fircrest Market, near the mobile home park.”
DeVore is downright evangelical on the topic of pedestrian safety, but he doesn’t put the responsibility solely in the hands of drivers. “Pedestrians need to be aware of their surroundings and take responsibility for their actions,” he said. “We always expect it out of the driver. We should also expect it from the pedestrians, too.”
There are a lot of myths and misunderstandings about crosswalk safety, DeVore said, and the primary one is that pedestrians always have the right of way.
“That’s not true,” DeVore said. “The law says that a pedestrian cannot enter a crosswalk until it is safe to do so. So if cars are coming, you first have to make sure that those cars see you, that they’re coming to a stop and that they’re far enough away that they don’t have to jam on their brakes.”
On the other hand, once a pedestrian has ascertained that it’s safe and has “taken lawful possession of a crosswalk, then a vehicle must yield.” DeVore said.
He quickly sketched out a couple of common situations where drivers and pedestrians get into trouble at crosswalks.
“If, for example, you’re standing on the curb, and the car in the lane closest to you, sees you and slows to a stop, but the driver in the next lane over just goes right through the crosswalk — that is a violation. You can’t pass someone who is stopped at a crosswalk for a pedestrian.”
On the other hand, if the driver who stops for the pedestrian is in the far lane, the onus is still on the pedestrian to make sure that oncoming traffic in closer lanes sees them and slows to stop before they step into the crosswalk.
Another common misunderstanding about crosswalks is whether a driver has to wait until a pedestrian has finished crossing before the driver can proceed.
“There is no law that says you have to wait until a person has completely crossed the crosswalk and stepped up on the curb on the other side — though a lot of people seem to think that’s what the law is,” DeVore said. (He thinks some over-zealous traffic cops might be partially responsible for the prevalence of this particular misunderstanding.)
“You have to use your judgment,” he said. “If somebody is just two inches past your car, that’s obviously not safe, but if someone is 10 feet past your car, there’s no way you could hit them and it’s safe to go. As long as you stopped and you’ve allowed them to pass in front of your vehicle, at some point they do hit a safe zone where it’s fine for you to move on. The Sonoma County Traffic Court has upheld that time and again.”
DeVore is ambivalent about crosswalks with yellow flashing lights: “Yes, they do get drivers’ attention,” he said, “but they also give pedestrians a false sense of security, like ‘Oh, I hit the button so now everybody’s going to stop for me.’ That isn’t true.”
“How many times have you been driving along, and you see the flashing lights but nobody’s there and you just drive on through? That’s perfectly legal,” DeVore said. “The lights are there to get your attention, but flashing yellow lights on a crosswalk are not a red light,” he said. “Drivers don’t have to stop just because they’re flashing. Sometimes drivers notice the lights, but still may not see the pedestrian, so pedestrians still need to be careful.”
No one likes getting a ticket, DeVore knows, but he hopes this operation will be a wake up call. “This will be a reminder to pedestrians and drivers that everyone needs to get along and be safe.”