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Ohio Puts the Squeeze on People’s Right to Walk

As this video from Transit Miami shows, crossing the street on foot can be hazardous. A new law in Ohio is a step in the wrong direction.

The country's seventh most populous state is rolling back pedestrians' right-of-way within crosswalks when they have a walk signal. The state of Ohio recently updated its Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, putting in place new limits on people's legal rights to walk without risk of being at fault in the event of a collision.

The new rules require pedestrians to yield to cars turning right or left on red at the beginning of the green signal. Columbus-area cycling advocate Patricia Kovacs, in a petition she is circulating, said the state of Ohio allows for walk signals as short as four seconds. Surrendering right of way at the beginning of the walk cycle might mean missing out on a chance for pedestrians to cross the street safely and legally.

"When is it okay for the pedestrian to start to walk?" said Portland-based attorney Ray Thomas, who specializes in bike and pedestrian law. "The law doesn’t say."

In addition, under the new law, pedestrians do not have the right-of-way at the beginning of the walk signal, but have to "yield the right-of-way to vehicles lawfully within the intersection at the time that the walking person signal indication is first shown." This is actually not a terribly unusual policy, Thomas said. It is generally good practice for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists to allow the intersection to clear before beginning across.

But subordinating pedestrian right of way until the intersection is clear also assumes drivers are responsibly following traffic laws, meaning they slow down or stop on yellow rather than speeding up. In reality, a common response is to speed up.

"A driver could barrel out to make a left turn on a green," Thomas said, " if there was a collision, the driver could say, 'Well the pedestrian should not have started [across the street] while I was still in the intersection."

Kovacs is asking the Ohio General Assembly and ODOT to change the law back to its previous wording.

"The laws as they stand imply that if a pedestrian is hit by a motor vehicle, that the driver may not be liable if they claim that they were already in the intersection when the pedestrian received their green or WALK signal," Kovacs writes. "It shouldn’t matter where the motor vehicle is located, the driver should always yield to pedestrians lawfully in the crosswalk."

Last year, 115 pedestrians were killed on Ohio roadways. ODOT has not responded to inquiries about how the state's 11.5 million residents would be informed of this changes, or what the agency plans to do to reduce pedestrian deaths.

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