Matching Enforcement to the Law in Arlington's Crosswalks
When enforcement doesn’t match the law, it creates more trouble for everyone. A look at the gap between Virginia Code and ACPD’s enforcement of right of way at crosswalks.
Monday night, the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee held a site visit at the intersection of Lynn Street and Lee Highway, perhaps the busiest car-pedestrian-bike intersection in Arlington. Members of the public, along with representatives from the Arlington County Police Department and Arlington County staff, discussed the safety challenges of crossing the intersection, which Patch Editor Jason Spencer reported on here.
In the course of the discussion, it became clear that the Arlington County Police Department takes a different view of what it means to have the "right of way" in a crosswalk than one might take from simply reading the law.
In contrast to what the plain language of the law might lead you to believe, ACPD apparently believes that pedestrians and cyclists crossing Lynn Street must yield their right of way when not doing so would lead to a conflict with motorized traffic turning from the I-66 exit ramp (see the last sentence of the Virginia Code quoted below).
This is a troublesome standard, as it essentially enshrines the "might makes right" approach that appears to guide some motorists.
While it is certainly prudent -- and even advisable -- for cyclists and pedestrians to yield when it appears a car may not, that's not the behavior prescribed by Virginia law. Further, when cyclists are constantly hearing that it's important they follow the law, it's not helpful for ACPD to reinterpret the law in favor of the convenience of motorists.
Enforcement practices matter. When they fail to line up with the law, the practices create murky new standards and expectations. Such uncertainty can be dangerous, with those who have read the law operating under one set of assumptions, and those who are aware of the enforcement standards another. In this case, it can lead one cyclist to pull up short when faced with a car at a crosswalk while the cyclist behind him continues through the intersection. This is dangerous for both the cyclist and the driver.
Enforcement has to be harmonized to match the spirit, if not always the letter, of the law.
If those enforcing the law believe that it should be changed, that's another – separate – process. Until then, Arlington County should work to make sure that its enforcement practices better reflect Virginia law.
Mark Blacknell is chairman of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee, a member of the board of directors of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and a League Cycling Instructor.
Drivers to stop for pedestrians; installation of certain signs; penalty.
A. The driver of any vehicle on a highway shall yield the right-of-way to any pedestrian crossing such highway:
1. At any clearly marked crosswalk, whether at mid-block or at the end of any block;
[ . . . ]
B. Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection A of this section, at intersections or crosswalks where the movement of traffic is being regulated by law-enforcement officers or traffic control devices, the driver shall yield according to the direction of the law-enforcement officer or device.
No pedestrian shall enter or cross an intersection in disregard of approaching traffic.
The drivers of vehicles entering, crossing, or turning at intersections shall change their course, slow down, or stop if necessary to permit pedestrians to cross such intersections safely and expeditiously.
Pedestrians crossing highways at intersections shall at all times have the right-of-way over vehicles making turns into the highways being crossed by the pedestrians.