New legislation introduced today by Public Advocate Letitia James would extend the right-of-way window for pedestrians in city crosswalks. Under current law, a pedestrian's right-of-way is relinquished as soon as the countdown clock starts flashing—a signal, for many pedestrians, to step briskly into the street. James' legislation would insure right-of-way protection for the duration of the countdown clock, or the flashing red hand.
It has technically been less easy for drivers to hit pedestrians and get away with it since the Right-of-Way Law passed in August 2014, empowering NYPD officers to charge drivers who kill or injure pedestrians. But the law, underutilized to begin with—according to the DOT [PDF], it was applied in just over 1% of about 1,000 failure-to-yield cases between September and December of 2014—currently does not extend to pedestrians crossing during the countdown or the flash.
"If a pedestrian enters the crosswalk after the hand starts flashing or the countdown begins, the driver can’t be held liable,” James told the Daily News. “It’s an outdated law.” According to the tabloid, the law was signed into effect years before countdown clocks were introduced to NYC streets.
James says her legislation "would change the law to reflect how all New Yorkers operate."
Streetsblog, which has described the law as "completely at odds with how people walk," pointed out over the summer that countdown clocks are prevalent on wider streets, to help pedestrians determine if they have enough time to make the crossing. In these spots, the countdown clock tends to take up "most" of the crossing window. This is true at the intersection of Atlantic and Vanderbilt Avenues in Brooklyn, where the road is wide enough to be separated by a median, and the countdown cycle is longer than the white "walk" cycle.
Attorney Steve Vaccaro put it this way for the blog: “Motorists and bicyclists are permitted to enter the intersection on a yellow and retain their right of way until exiting the intersection. It makes no sense to require a pedestrian who lawfully begins crossing an intersection to wait for an entire additional cycle at the median, just because the countdown clock on the corner flashes ’30 seconds’ as the person crosses the median."
Even still, it's not uncommon for drivers to skirt criminal charges, even when they strike pedestrians who definitively have the right of way. Earlier this month, an MTA bus driver struck and killed a 69-year-old Queens women in a Forest Hills crosswalk. He was not charged.