Do pedestrians always have the right of way?

Posted: January 16th, 2015 | Ask the Attorney, Columns, Featured | 3 Comments

By Joshua Bonnici | Ask the Attorney

“My boyfriend and I were crossing the street one night, and a driver yelled at us. After that, I tried to research it and was confused. Do pedestrians really have the right of way all the time?” – Tina S.

Josh Bonnici

Josh Bonnici

Thank you for your question, Tina. My office gets flooded with potential cases where people are stuck by cars and injured. These are some of the most contested cases by insurance companies, and often require decisions by juries.

To start, while my tone is causal and jokes may be corny, none of my suggestions should be taken as legal advice, nor does it create any attorney-client relationship. However, I will point out some local codes and ordinances for you to weigh your options in order to peacefully remedy your situation.

I am here to give you the answer attorneys love to give to open-ended questions: It depends. In fact, the saying that “the pedestrian always has the right of way” is just that: only a saying and not law. Unfortunately, the law on the topic is a bit confusing and not as straightforward as one would think.

Everyone is familiar with the pedestrian crosswalk at a traffic light or stop sign. The law requires cars to come to a complete stop (at a stop sign or red traffic light), and because of the stopping requirement, any pedestrians wishing to cross the street may do so.

But, what if there’s a marked crosswalk, but no stop sign or traffic signal “controlling” the area? What about when no designated crosswalk is visible? Should the motorist be responsible? In California, the law describes both the responsibilities of the pedestrian, and the motorist. However, they are not as cut-and-dry as people think.

Let’s start with some law: “The driver of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within any marked crosswalk or within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection. The driver of a vehicle approaching a pedestrian within any marked or unmarked crosswalk shall exercise all due care and shall reduce the speed of the vehicle or take any other action relating to the operation of the vehicle as necessary to safeguard the safety of the pedestrian” California Vehicle Code 21950(a & c). Sounds reasonable enough, and you probably knew that. But, as we know, there are crosswalks that are not at intersections, where there is no need for a motorist to stop other than for a pedestrian.

But what responsibilities does a motorist have if a pedestrian is crossing? Ultimately, a motorist must yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk (marked or otherwise).

Now, the law that comes into play often in late-night street crossings: “No pedestrian may suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle that is so close as to constitute an immediate hazard” CVC 21950(b). But what does “so close as to constitute an immediate hazard” mean in the real world? 10 feet? 10 yards? 100 yards? Again, it depends. What is the speed limit for the area? Is it a controlled crosswalk? What are the weather conditions? There are many factors that come into play when assessing whether a pedestrian may share fault with a motorist.

On the other hand, if a pedestrian is crossing a roadway where there is no intersection or crosswalk, the responsibility is on the pedestrian. CVC 21954(a) reads, “Every pedestrian upon a roadway at any point other than within a marked crosswalk or within an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection shall yield the right-of-way to all vehicles upon the roadway so near as to constitute an immediate hazard.” But, the law doesn’t let drivers off the hook completely. Section (b) of the same section states that “the provisions of this section shall not relieve the driver of a vehicle from the duty to exercise due care for the safety of any pedestrian upon a roadway.”

Because of the ambiguity of the laws, cases where pedestrians are injured after being struck by a vehicle are difficult, and the parties often share liability. Specific facts such as how many times a pedestrian looked for oncoming traffic, the visibility on the day of the accident and the speed of the motorist and a host of others all come into play for an investigation into the responsible party.

Moral of the story? Whether you are a pedestrian enjoying your latte on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in La Jolla, or a motorist driving to a business meeting Downtown, make sure to be aware of your surroundings. Only enter the street or cross a crosswalk when it is safe to do so. There are many distractions in our beautiful city of San Diego, so stay focused and get where you are going safely!

What more information California pedestrian laws? Take a quick read through CVC 21949-21971 for more laws governing several more scenarios.

—Joshua Bonnici is the managing attorney at Bonnici Law Group, APC, a Downtown civil litigation firm specializing in representing injury and disability victims. He spends his time representing local families and individuals, as well as riding his bike and walking his dog around his Hillcrest home. Feel free to reach out with specific questions: 619-259-5199 or


  1. […] An attorney answers the question of whether pedestrians always have the right-of-way in California. […]

  2. Laura Arehart says:

    Good information! A very enlightening article particularly in beautiful San Diego where pedestrians are always out and about. Pedestrians should not assume they have the right of way everywhere in every situation and I’m afraid many think they do.

  3. Tim says:

    Also, if a pedestrian is struck crossing against a do not walk signal, they are totally at fault, according to CA law.

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