BIKE INTERSECTIONS 5-09122013142308 (copy)

The return of college students to Madison streets means a lot more bikes and pedestrians -- and a lot more conflicts with motorists.

So when the tires screech, car horns sound and bikers extend their middle fingers, who has the right-of-way?

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation, in a guide to bike path and street crossings, says state law has one ironclad rule:

"When a driver is approaching any legal crosswalk, according to state law, they must yield to 'a pedestrian, or to a person riding a bicycle, in a manner which is consistent with the safe use of the crosswalk by pedestrians.'"

But pedestrians and bicyclists have a responsibility to enter the crosswalk “in a manner which is consistent with the safe use of the crosswalk by a pedestrian,” meaning that all bets are off if someone makes a “sudden movement" into the street.

But in some circumstance state law isn't very clear.

For instance, when a bicyclist has a stop or yield sign on a bike path crosswalk, the DOT concedes: "Wisconsin state laws do not address this ambiguity."

Clear as mud, right?

I asked Arthur Ross, Madison's pedestrian and bike coordinator, to offer his take.

 "A crosswalk is a crosswalk, whether at the intersection of two streets, at a mid-block or non-intersection location, or at the intersection of a path and a street," he said in an email. "Drivers have an obligation to yield to pedestrians and bicyclists at the crosswalk."

Following are other questions from readers and from The Capital Times concerning right-of-way issues. 

At a crosswalk, does a bicyclist have the same right-of-way as a pedestrian?

Ross writes: "State statutes treat a person riding a bicycle in a crosswalk the same as a pedestrian, as long as the bicyclist’s use of the crosswalk is 'consistent with the safe use of the crosswalk by pedestrians.' What does the phrase in quotations mean? A pedestrian’s responsibility at a crosswalk is to not enter the crosswalk if a vehicle is so close that it would be difficult for the driver to yield. The bicyclist does not have to dismount and walk across the street, nor does the bicyclist have to slow down to a walking speed. The issue is simply the distance the driver is from the crosswalk when the pedestrian or bicyclist enters the street. Is that distance enough for the driver to be able to yield to the pedestrian or bicyclist by slowing down or stopping in order to 'avoid endangering, colliding with or interfering in any way' with the pedestrian or bicyclist crossing the street."

If a pedestrian is standing on the curb do they have the right-of-way, or must they step into the gutter to show their intent to cross the street?

Ross: "In my mind intent is really the key here. When we stop at a stop sign, we have a responsibility to yield to traffic on the cross street before proceeding. We don’t yield just to drivers who are in the intersection, but also to drivers who are approaching the intersection and will get there before we can cross or turn. Similarly for yielding to pedestrians at a crosswalk, in my mind, we should be yielding to pedestrians in or about to enter the crosswalk. This is the law in Boulder, Colorado, for example. 'A driver shall yield the right of way to every pedestrian ... approaching or within a crosswalk.'"

How about when there's confusion about whether someone wants to cross or is merely waiting for a bus at a bus stop?

"I understand the confusion that can be caused by someone waiting for a bus at a corner. Are they trying to get across the street and looking at drivers to see if they will yield, or are they looking down the street to see if the bus is coming? In terms of where does the crosswalk start, does the pedestrian have to enter the street, or does the driver have an obligation to yield even if the pedestrians is still on the curb but intending to cross? How does the pedestrian indicate their intent to cross? This is really what the pedestrian flags are about -- communication between pedestrians and drivers. This has been codified in some Canadian provinces. In Alberta, for example, the law states that drivers need to yield to a pedestrian on a curb who raises his or her hand towards traffic to indicate their intent to cross the street. They even teach this to kids in school using the mnemonic, Point, Pause,  Proceed."

Does a bicyclist riding the wrong way on a one way street on a sidewalk coming to an intersection have the right-of-way?

Ross: "Yes. Drivers have to yield to bicyclists in the crosswalk regardless of which direction the bicyclist is coming from."

Ross has this to add: "I think it's an important starting point to getting people to think about their actions in traffic. Technically, the laws in Wisconsin generally do not assign right-of-way to one party or the other. Rather, the laws assign the responsibility to one party to yield or give the right-of-way to another. Right-of-way is something that is given, never taken. I think if people understood this -- whether we are driving a motor vehicle, riding a bike or walking, we are governed by sets of responsibilities, instead of rights -- we would all operate safer in the traffic environment."

Additional resources offered by Ross:

Wave, Watch, Walk technique for street crossing (Essentially the red-flag technique without the flag)

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.