How are Washington DC’s Pedestrian Countdown Signals Better than Virginia’s or Maryland’s?

By Cory Bilton

Pedestrian Countdown Signal

Uniformity is good when it comes to traffic signs and signals. Uniformity helps us to recognize meaning without spending too much time thinking about it. For example, a stop sign is easily recognizable and meaningful, even if your brain doesn’t take the time to read the word “STOP.” The red octagon with white lettering is quickly recognizable and instantly meaningful. Generally, uniformity in traffic devices is very useful and helps us all get along safely.

However, signs and signals also have to make good common sense. If they don’t, people are going to ignore them. For example, if a stop sign were placed mid-block, without any obvious purpose or meaning, drivers’ will have a variety of responses to it. Some may still stop. Others will only slow down. And still others will probably blow right through it. The reason is that it is nonsensical to place a stop sign mid-block. Placing stop signs at intersections, however, agrees with our common sense. So in such instances we submit to the sign’s command.

Pedestrian countdown signals are a great example of a uniform signal that doesn’t always connect with common sense. Pedestrians are often confused by them or disregard them. In fact, even lawyers, police officers, and lawmakers are sometimes confused by them (and disregard them). There is principled disagreement about countdown signals, too. In fact, pedestrian countdown signals in Washington, DC are actually different than the ones in Virginia or Maryland. The following summary covers the law, the sources, and the policies of pedestrian countdown signals in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.

What Are Pedestrian Countdown Signals?

At any intersection controlled by traffic lights, the pedestrian countdown signal is the modern signaling device for all pedestrian traffic. It typically consists of a symbol of either a person walking or a hand combined with a timer that counts down to the red light. You probably see them all over town and give them little thought.

Where are the Laws Governing Pedestrian Countdown Signals?

All of the requirements and details about pedestrian countdown signals are contained in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), which is maintained by the Federal Highway Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The MUTCD is the “national standard for all traffic control devices installed on any street, highway, bikeway, or provide road open to public travel” according to 23 U.S.C. 109(d).   Most of the pedestrian countdown signal requirements are contained in Chapter 4E of the MUTCD.

The MUTCD applies to all roads, even state roads. States are required to adopt the MUTCD, but can modify it somewhat, so long as it is in substantial conformance with the national MUTCD. 23 CFR 655.603. All three local jurisdictions have modified the MUTCD that they follow. (Virginia’s MUTCD supplement; Maryland’s MUTCD supplement, DC’s modification of the MUTCD is DCMR 18-2100.)

What is the Legal Meaning of the Pedestrian Signals?

According to the MUTCD, there are three different permissible indications on pedestrian signals:

  1. A steady Walking Person signal means that a pedestrian facing that signal can start to cross the roadway towards the signal.
  2. A flashing Upraised Hand signal means that a pedestrian shall not start to cross the roadway towards the signal, but any pedestrian already in the roadway may finish crossing.
  3. A steady Upraised Hand signal means a pedestrian shall not enter the roadway in the direction of the signal.

(MUTCD Section 4E.02)

Did you catch that? I was in a bit of disbelief too when I first saw it. But it’s true: the flashing “Upraised Hand” means that you can’t cross unless you are already in the roadway.

How is the Countdown Time Calculated?

When I’m walking around town, I see flashing “Upraised Hand” pedestrian countdown signals start at very high numbers; 30 seconds, 45 seconds, 60 seconds. I could easily make it across the intersection safely in that lengthy period. But the MUTCD wants me to stop and wait. Why is that?

The MUTCD bases the minimum countdown time on a hypothetical walking speed of 3.5 feet per second. (Section 4E.06, paragraph 07. There are many nuances to this calculation.) 3.5 feet per second works out to about 2.4 miles per hour. So if you walk any faster than this (or ride a bicycle), then you’ll be waiting on the curb for a long time during the flashing “Upraised Hand,” even though you could make it to the other side of the intersection just fine. Additionally, I’ve been told that a good deal of “engineering judgment” goes into the determination of how long to make the countdown. While this standard may not be completely arbitrary, it certainly only makes sense for very slow walkers.

Why Isn’t There Just a Single Countdown from the Start of the Walk Signal?

The MUTCD requires that there be no countdown during the Walking Person signal. Section 4E.07, paragraph 06. To me, this seems a little backward. If the countdown allows pedestrians to better manage crossing the street, wouldn’t extending the countdown to start from the Walking Person signal make even better sense? The Federal Highway Administration notes that some lights can’t use the countdown during the Walking Person signal, because the green light is variable depending on the traffic at the crossing street. Thus, at such intersections the Walking Person signal may continue indefinitely unless a car arrives in the crossing direction. While this is not really an issue in our urbanized metropolitan area, the Federal Highway Administration believes that if it applies different standards to different intersections, pedestrians will be confused. I’m not convinced this is a very good reason.

Lawmakers in Washington, DC apparently do not think it’s a very good reason either. In fact, back in 2008, DC added the following exception to its acceptance of the MUTCD:

The countdown display on pedestrian crossing signals shall operate for the duration of the “WALK” interval for pre-timed traffic signals rather than operate only during the “DON’T WALK” interval as required by Chapter 4E, Section 4E.07 of the MUTCD.

(DCMR 18-2100.2(b).)

So the next time you are walking around somewhere in Washington, DC, take note of the fact that all the pedestrian signal countdowns start from the very moment the Walking Person signal turns on. I think this deviation makes good sense and also increases pedestrian safety in Washington, DC. Neither Virginia nor Maryland makes this exception.

Is a Pedestrian or Bicyclist that Begins to Cross with a Flashing Upraised Hand Signal Contributorily Negligent if Hit by a Vehicle?

It depends. For those that aren’t familiar with the term contributory negligence, it is an antiquated legal doctrine that says that if the injured person contributed at all, even just a little, to her own injuries, she cannot collect against another negligent party. For a pedestrian or bicyclist to be contributorily negligent while struck in the crosswalk, her actions would need to be the proximate cause of her injuries. While entering the intersection with the Upraised Hand flashing may be a traffic infraction, that doesn’t automatically mean that it was a legal proximate cause. Pedestrians or bicyclists may still be in the crosswalk while the Upraised Hand flashes, because they might have entered the crosswalk during the Walking Person signal. For this reason, it seems to me that anyone’s presence in the crosswalk at that time can’t be reasonably called a proximate cause of an accident.

However, just because it’s not a reasonable argument doesn’t mean it’s not an argument. Insurers may certainly argue contributory negligence in such cases. They may argue that any violation of the rules of the road, and subsequent injury, is evidence of negligence. If this argument sticks and the pedestrian or bicyclist is found contributorily negligent, she can recover nothing.

Future Policy Changes for Pedestrian Countdown Signals

Pedestrian countdown signals are great. It is immensely helpful to pedestrians to know how much time is left to cross the street before the light turns red. But the signals could be better. First, countdown signals in our area would be better if Virginia and Maryland followed Washington, DC’s lead and started the countdown timer from the moment the Walking Person signal started. Second, pedestrian countdown signals could be improved by eliminating the legal significance of the flashing Upraised Hand signal. Pedestrians and bicyclists should be able to determine whether, based on the countdown timer, they have sufficient time to cross the intersection. Arbitrary walking speeds only work for pedestrians that walk at that speed; they fail for everyone else. Furthermore, an arbitrary walking speed is going to be nowhere near the speed of a bicyclist using the crosswalk. As our streets become less car-centric, we’re going to need to start rethinking all of our street signs and signals. In urban areas like Washington, DC, changing pedestrian countdown signals to conform with most peoples’ common sense will be a huge improvement.

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