Texas is a pretty driving-intensive state, given its span of almost 270,000 square miles. Texans are used to sort of sprawling out horizontally, which means a lot of vehicular travel to get from living space to work space to activities and leisure destinations. That said, we're not without our share of pedestrians. They're not as densely packed as they get up north, true, but we still have legs and we use them. Downtown Dallas, especially in the work week, is plenty frustrating to navigate thanks to all the desk-jockeys scurrying between buildings.
With so many people hoofing it around, and so many other people glaring at them from inside machines of fiberglass and steel with bellies full of combustible fuel, it would probably benefit pedestrians to know as much as they can about the traffic laws designed to keep them safe. That information could prove exceptionally helpful when identifying the liable party in case the unfortunate occurs.
Enter the Texas Transportation Code--your handy guide to legally navigating the roadways of the Lone Star State, be it by foot, by car, or even by parade float.
Common Misconceptions in Liability Law: Pedestrian Edition
"Man versus Man" is one of the classic conflicts present in literature throughout human history. While many would argue that peace is attainable and humankind doesn't have to be adversarial by nature, it can't be denied that people have squared off, individually or en masse, since time immemorial.
The difficulty with applying that classic struggle to traffic law is that Man now has a Beast to ride, heavily tipping the scales. In a contest of drivers versus pedestrians, one side is more likely to emerge unhurt. That's why traffic laws were created--to regulate the behaviors of both parties and minimize the possibility of a tragic clash.
Pedestrians don't always seem to have gotten the memo, and are often under the mistaken impression that drivers should cede the right of way in essentially every scenario where the two meet. Common sense dictates otherwise, as does the letter of the law. Here's three situations where it's more complicated than "Four tires bad, two legs good:"
- Pedestrians always have the right of way at a crosswalk. I have to believe this idea stems largely from stubbornness more than genuine ideological belief. It seems pretty straightforward, to the point where specific lights are used to dictate one party's right-of-way over the other's. If the pedestrian has a "walk" signal, they have the right of way--that's why the light unambiguously says "walk." If there are no "walk" signals at the intersection in question, the pedestrian is able to cross when facing a green light; that means they are walking with the flow of traffic, but should still be watchful for turning vehicles. If there is a crosswalk but no traffic lights, the pedestrian has the right of way so long as there is enough time for approaching motor vehicles to yield (no darting out into the lane).
- A car that hits a pedestrian is always going to be liable. With occasional exceptions, most people do not deliberately hit one another with moving vehicles. A lot of these unfortunate incidents come down to the circumstances in which they occurred. For example, someone might choose to jog at night. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it does present a partial hazard in the form of reduced visibility for drivers that might encounter the jogger. Compound that risk with the jogger's choice to wear dark-colored clothing and no reflective items or lights, and they become much harder to see; not every area is well-illuminated by municipal streetlights. In this scenario, the night-jogger is hit by a motorist and sues for compensation.
Texas civil code operates on the principle of modified comparative fault,which could play a significant role in this scenario. In civil proceedings, "fault" is parsed into a percentage to determine liability. Under the modified comparative fault, if a defendant (the driver) can prove that the plaintiff (the jogger) is 51% or more at fault for the circumstances that led to the injury, the plaintiff is barred from collecting any damages related to the case. In other words: If the driver is able to convince a jury that the jogger (who decided to wear dark clothes in a poorly-lit area with no reflectors) was primarily responsible for the circumstances of the accident, the driver can avoid paying any damages to the jogger. Thus, in the eyes of the law, a pedestrian can sometimes be responsible for his or her injuries.
- It is a driver's job to monitor and avoid pedestrians walking on a roadway. I can appreciate the general idea behind all of these principles; after all, one party is protected by a cage and airbags and the other isn't. However, vigilance is the responsibility of any- and everyone on the road, in the interest of preserving the safety of ourselves and others. I won't argue that drivers shouldn't exercise caution around pedestrians, but that duty is reciprocal.
There's a lot of roads between crosswalks, and pedestrians need to make use of those too sometimes. Many (but not all) municipal areas with sufficient populations will have sidewalks for this reason. The Texas Transportation Code has a fairly clear outline of how roadways are to be used when taking feet to the street:
Sec. 552.006. USE OF SIDEWALK.
(a) A pedestrian may not walk along and on a roadway if an adjacent sidewalk is provided and is accessible to the pedestrian.
(b) If a sidewalk is not provided, a pedestrian walking along and on a highway shall if possible walk on:
(1) the left side of the roadway; or
(2) the shoulder of the highway facing oncoming traffic.
(c) The operator of a vehicle emerging from or entering an alley, building, or private road or driveway shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian approaching on a sidewalk extending across the alley, building entrance or exit, road, or driveway.
All of that is important material. Pedestrians should use a sidewalk where it's available, and for the most part everyone has always seemed on board with that. Cars should cede the right-of-way to crossing pedestrians when pulling out of driveways, alleys, parking lots, etc. Most importantly, if there is no sidewalk, pedestrians should try to walk on the roadway so that they face approaching headlights--on the left side of standard roadways or on the traffic-facing shoulder of the highway. That principle seems to confuse a lot of people; why walk toward a fast-moving car? Mostly because it helps the party on foot make better choices in the interest of self-preservation. If you directly see a car start to lose control, you have a better chance of getting out of the way.
The Law Cannot Predict When People Will Choose to Disobey It.
Codified law by its nature is an effort to bend chaos into order, and as much as words on a page can do that, it succeeds. People walk on sidewalks, cars stop at traffic lights while pedestrians use the crosswalks, and those on the highways' shoulders try to stay out of the way. Unfortunately, the human behavior law cannot always be so easily contained. The Transportation Code can only dictate appropriate behavior so long as every party agrees to have that behavior controlled; hundreds of thousands of transgressions occur every day.
An unfortunate example of one such motorist refusing to obey several laws at once happened on December 26 in Vidor, Texas (a small town just outside Beaumont). According to the official probable cause affidavit, 31-year-old Christopher Morgan veered off the road in Vidor and fatally struck 41-year-old pedestrian Shane Rollins with his pickup truck. The officer who responded to the scene detected the smell of alcohol, and Morgan later confessed that before driving he had consumed "four small mason jars of white Zinfandel wine." The takeaway is that a pedestrian can appropriately obey traffic laws and may still meet an untimely end if a motorist does not.
The careful application of the law no doubt has prevented countless tragedies, but there aren't many news stories about that. Why would there be? In most instances where the law succeeds, literally nothing happens. That's the point. Dangers are prevented because of their legal prohibition, and people go on with their days. However, when someone is injured because another party chooses not to obey those laws, it's important to have recourse. The law provides not only guidelines for appropriate public behavior, but also a system to punish those who refuse to operate by them. When someone is injured or killed by the negligent action or inaction of another, it is distinctly possible that the liable party owes compensation to the victim or his family.