Know your rights as a pedestrian

Did you know?

A crosswalk can be marked or unmarked.
  • True
  • False

In British Columbia, 2,600 pedestrians are injured in car accidents every year. And most accidents occur at intersections, where pedestrians are especially vulnerable. In order to stay safe, it’s important to know your rights as a pedestrian. 

What you should know

Drivers have a general duty to yield to pedestrians

“My wife and I were out for a stroll with our daughter one evening. We were walking along the sidewalk when we saw a car come racing out of a driveway ahead of us. He didn’t even stop to check if anyone was coming. I flagged the guy down and told him to be more careful. Many drivers kind of forget that one lapse of attention can cost a pedestrian’s life.”

Tony, Penticton, BC

Under the law in BC, drivers must exercise due care to avoid colliding with a pedestrian. What amounts to “due care” depends on the situation. For example, the standard of due care will be higher in a parking lot than on a highway, because a driver should expect to see pedestrians in a parking lot. 

This rule doesn’t give pedestrians a free pass in all situations. Pedestrians have legal duties too, and some override a driver’s duty to yield to them. We explain this in more detail below.

A crosswalk doesn’t need to be marked

According to the definition in BC’s main traffic law, a crosswalk can be marked or unmarked. An unmarked crosswalk can be an “extension of the lateral lines of a sidewalk.” So for example, say you’re walking along a sidewalk and you come to an intersection. On the opposite side of the street, the sidewalk continues. The gap between the two sidewalks is considered a crosswalk, even if there are no markings on the road

This is important, since pedestrians usually have the right of way when using a crosswalk. But there are some exceptions, which we’ll explore next.

You usually have the right of way in a crosswalk

A common misconception is that pedestrians always have the right of way when using a crosswalk. While in most cases that’s true, there are some exceptions.

Under BC law, a driver must yield to the right of way of a pedestrian who’s using a crosswalk where there are no traffic control signals. If there are lights or signals directing the flow of traffic, drivers and pedestrians must obey them. Below, we’ll look more closely at what this means.

As well, a pedestrian mustn’t step into the path of a vehicle that can’t reasonably be expected to stop in time (whether in a crosswalk or not). 

These two rules must be read in light of the driver’s general duty to yield to pedestrians, described above. On top of that, pedestrians and drivers have a common law duty to exercise due care and attention (explained below). 

To sum up, pedestrians have the right of way when using a crosswalk provided they:

  • don’t step into the path of a vehicle that can’t reasonably be expected to stop in time,

  • exercise due care and attention for their own safety and the safety of others, and

  • follow the directions of any traffic control signals.

Crossing the road at a place other than a crosswalk

Under the law in BC, when a pedestrian is crossing the road somewhere other than a crosswalk, they must yield to the right of way of drivers. Even so, drivers are expected to slow down. And they must honk their horn in warning and take care not to collide with pedestrians on the road.

Road users must obey traffic control signals

Under BC law, drivers and pedestrians must obey the instructions of a traffic control device. This includes an official sign, signal, or marking that directs the flow of traffic and is authorized by a government body. 

A traffic control signal is a variety of traffic control device that directs traffic to stop and go. A “walk” light at an intersection is an example. So are the green, yellow, and red lights that drivers must follow. 

As a pedestrian, you have the right of way when you’re following the directions of a traffic control signal. For example, under the law, if the walk signal (the walking figure) at an intersection is illuminated, drivers must yield to you as you cross.

If the signal changes when you’re in the middle of the crosswalk, you must proceed to the other side as quickly as you can. You have the right of way for that purpose. If the signal changes from “walk” to “don’t walk” when you’re halfway across the crosswalk, you have the right of way over drivers until you reach the other side of the road. You don’t have to break into a run, but you shouldn’t dawdle. 

You must use the sidewalk when there’s one available

Under the law in BC, pedestrians aren’t allowed to walk on the road if there’s a passable sidewalk available. If there isn’t one, you must walk on the far left side of the road, facing oncoming traffic. If you’re on the highway, you must stick to the left shoulder. That way, it’s easier to see approaching vehicles and take evasive action if you need to.

Road users have a duty to exercise reasonable care

The rules set out in BC’s main traffic law aren’t the end of the story. The courts have recognized that road users have an overarching common law duty of care. In particular, pedestrians and drivers must exercise due care for their own safety and the safety of others. 

Even if you meet your obligations under BC’s traffic law, you may still face liability if you don’t exercise reasonable care and attention. For example, say you’re crossing an intersection in a crosswalk. The traffic light across the street is green, so you have the right of way. But you’re staring at your phone, and you step into the street without looking up. You walk directly into the path of a car making a right turn. 

If the above scenario results in an accident, your behaviour may have amounted to contributory negligence. Under the law, if you played a role in the injuries you sustained, you own some of the blame. A court would look at all of the circumstances in deciding how the liability should be divided.

Make eye contact

One of the leading causes of traffic accidents is distracted driving. Before stepping into the street, try to make eye contact with drivers approaching the crosswalk. If the driver’s attention is elsewhere, they may not be able to stop in time.

Municipalities may pass bylaws that regulate pedestrians

Under BC law, municipalities have the authority to create and enforce bylaws. Bylaws are laws made by a local government that apply only to the local area. Many municipalities have bylaws that apply to pedestrians. 

Many local bylaws overlap with provincial laws, but some create new offences. For example, Vancouver has a bylaw that prohibits jaywalking. If you break a local bylaw, you may receive a bylaw infraction ticket. See the provincial government’s website for more on bylaw infraction tickets.

  • This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
  • Reviewed for legal accuracy in June 2021
  • Time to read: 5 minutes

Reviewed for legal accuracy by

Joel Zanatta, The Cycling Lawyer

Joel Zanatta

Also on this topic

Still not sure what to do?

If you're looking for advice specific to your situation, there are options for free or low-cost help.

Options for legal help

Copyright 2022 People's Law School

Powered by contentful

We are grateful to work on the unceded traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations, whose Peoples continue to live on and care for these lands.