Giving way to pedestrians: in theory, at least

Give Way Give Way. Photo by Joe Parkin on Unsplash

One recurring issue faced by pedestrians is the lack of ‘giving way’ by vehicles turning left or right, to pedestrians crossing the street. There seems to be confusion among road users – both pedestrians and drivers – as to who has right of way. For others, to be sure, it is blatantly disregard by some drivers for the rights of pedestrian rights, the ‘might is right’ approach if you like. The lack of adherence to this rule is a risk to pedestrian safety – especially for those who are less mobile. 

Such is the non-adherence to this rule that this requirement is number two in the NRMA’s Top 10 most misunderstood road rules.

As a driver who is aware of this rule, I often see pedestrians wave me forward as I approach to turn, even though I’ve already slowed in my approach and have deliberated indicated with my hand to cross first. Conceivably, they may not be aware that they have the right of way, or it may be that they simply do not trust drivers – given the many occasions in which vehicles ignore this rule. 

To address this, leading urbanists have proposed reconceptualising the relationship between the footpath and the roadway. Specifically, as University of Sydney Professor David Levinson has stated

“We should think of these intersections as spaces where vehicles cross an implicit continuous footpath, rather than as places where people cross a vehicular lane.”

This change in perspective would require a significant education campaign to address the current outlook that it is pedestrians who are seen to be crossing the path of vehicles on the roadway. The Centre for Road Safety in Transport for NSW may be the logical/necessary lead organisation to coordinate this. It is worth noting, though, that of the 10 Tips and Advice to reduce pedestrian deaths and serious injuries, only one addresses drivers’ responsibilities – This placing the bulk of the onus on non-drivers for safety seems topsy-turvy, given that it is the driver’s who controls the ‘weapon’, which kills over 1100 people a year in Australia (and 132 pedestrians) according to BITRE

An alliance of civil society organisations to inform the design and roll-out of such an education campaign would be particularly powerful. Certain groups in society, such as older people, people with disability, parents of young children, may be less able or comfortable to assert their rights as pedestrians. Their experiences and others similarly affected should inform any education campaign. 

Aside from any high-profile campaign, there is a strong argument for enforcement, following an initial period of public education. Without a ‘stick, it seems unlikely that there will be any significant behavioural shifts in favour of pedestrian safety. 

Raising this issue with the office of Minister Stokes – who is currently minister for Minister for Infrastructure, Cities, and Active Transport at NSW Government – may be one way to highlight this issue and agitate for education and appropriate enforcement.