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The most deadly traffic policy you've never heard of leaves you vulnerable, too

Crosswalk laws often give legal protections only to 'pedestrians' – people on foot. Cyclists aren't protected. Nor are people using wheelchairs, scooters or other personal conveyances.

Cara Hamann
Opinion contributor

Roxana "Roxy" Fudge, a longtime Iowa resident, was out for a bike ride with her husband in Tucson, Arizona, on March 30, 2022, when tragedy struck. The couple, both avid bikers with decades of cycling experience, were riding their tandem bicycle on a trail, then used a crosswalk to navigate an intersection which they had been through many times over the years, when they were hit by a pickup. The driver failed to yield.

Roxy, 77, a retired nurse and nursing educator, died as a result of her crash-related injuries after spending an excruciating two months in the hospital. But the driver walked away with zero convictions despite the fatal crash. How is this possible?

There is a glaring gap in crosswalk laws in the United States, but this loophole is often unknown, so little is being done to fix it. Crosswalk laws often give legal protections only to “pedestrians” – people on foot. Cyclists aren’t protected. Nor are people using wheelchairs, scooters or other personal conveyances.

Crosswalk, people crossing in downtown

We are continually seeing advancements in vehicle safety and roadway infrastructure to improve safety for all road users. Yet, road traffic fatalities continue to increase. These fatalities are often among so-called vulnerable road users, including pedestrians and bicyclists.

Changing 'pedestrian' to 'person' could make a big difference

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a simple and straightforward fix to the legal loophole in crosswalk laws that left Roxy so vulnerable: Change the word “pedestrian” to “person.”

As an injury epidemiologist, I study crash prevention and outcomes, and I know that this simple change to crosswalk laws could make a big difference.

The vast majority of state crosswalk laws specifically and only use the word “pedestrian” in their language. For example, in Iowa, the “Pedestrians’ right-of-way” law states that "the driver of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way, slowing down or stopping if need be to so yield, to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within any marked crosswalk or within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection." Most other state codes have language that is very similar.

Cars move quickly on 86th Street through the intersection Monday, June 12, 2023 by 86th Street and the Monon. This intersection is a dangerous one for pedestrians and cyclists crossing, with heavy traffic. A wreath memorializing Frank Radaker is at the crosswalk. The Bicycle Garage Indy employee was struck by a vehicle at the intersection, as he biked to work, in 2021. He died soon after being hit.

Oregon is one state that gives bicyclists the right of way in crosswalks, but only if the bicyclists are riding no faster than "ordinary" walking speed.

Minnesota law covers bicyclists in crosswalks, and Wisconsin law covers cyclists as well as other conveyances (personal delivery devices, electric scooters and electric personal assistive mobility devices).

Despite these few examples, the vast majority of bicyclists and other personal conveyance device users are not legally protected when riding through a crosswalk in the United States.

Sure, crosswalks are primarily designed for pedestrians, but we must acknowledge that there are other humans using them. Bicycles, wheelchairs, scooters and other devices move humans whose lives matter and they should be legally protected in crosswalks just like people on foot.

A change in crosswalk laws might not have prevented the crash that killed Roxy, but it could provide the justice that people like Roxy deserve. A change in crosswalk law language can also provide law enforcement with greater latitude to cite and convict drivers who fail to yield to crosswalk users.

A small change in crosswalk law language can provide protections to bicyclists, as well as wheelchair users and people on scooters.  As we approach the 2024 state legislative sessions, let’s advocate for this simple language change in crosswalk laws to help protect everyone. 

Cara Hamann

Cara Hamann is an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Iowa College of Public Health. She is an injury epidemiologist who has specialized in road traffic safety research for 15 years. She is also an avid bicyclist and a close friend of Roxy Fudge's son, Geoff. This column first published in the Des Moines Register.

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