A a few weeks ago, I laced up my running shoes and went outside on a sunny May evening to log some miles in my hilly Bloomington neighborhood. Around mile three, I pulled up at a busy intersection without a crosswalk and saw cars waiting a few deep in multiple directions. Instead of darting out into traffic to maintain my training pace, I decided it was the perfect time to catch my breath.
After I wiped sweat from my eyes and stretched a bit, a friendly, gray-haired man in a red pickup waved at me to cross in front of him. I waved him off, though, mouthing the words “Go ahead” so I could rest another minute while traffic thinned out. He waved at me again, as if to say, “No, really, you can go now.” Other drivers began to honk their horns.
What would you do here?
Would you continue exchanging hand gestures, escalating accordingly until someone finally gives in? Or would you just say “the hell with it” and get to crossing the street?
I stayed put. (I love running, but in the end I love resting even more.) And from the curb, I watched as a black sedan that had been obscured by the red pickup suddenly lurched into the intersection and, without braking, proceeded to roll right through it. Had I attempted to cross the street when prompted by the driver of the pickup, I might not have made it to the other side.
As that car and others moved past, I thought of a friend and co-worker who’d recently been riding his bicycle near Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis. He was hauling his 3-year-old son behind him in a bike trailer, and he entered a crosswalk only after he saw a driver stopped at the intersection wave him through.
It turns out that the driver wasn’t waving, though; she was merely talking to her kids in the back seat, unaware of what her hands were doing or that a father and his son were inches from her car when she hit the gas to begin a right turn. She hit them with her minivan immediately. Fortunately, my friend suffered only bruises and a busted Burley. His kid, improbably, received not a scratch.
According to a recent Star Tribune article, a woman in St. Paul suffered “severe head injuries” after she was “waved” into an intersection by one motorist and then hit by another — one who couldn’t possibly have seen her until it was too late. (The woman died five days later.) According to the paper, another 60-plus collisions have occurred between cars and pedestrians or bicyclists so far this year. School isn’t even out yet, and that’s just in St. Paul.
Do I have your attention? (Notice the way I’m waving “hello.”)
As one of the countless runners and bicyclists in a metro area that’s consistently ranked among the fittest in the country, I can say without hesitation that it’s a great relief to arrive at an intersection — controlled or uncontrolled — and see a driver waving that extra-friendly Minnesota wave.
That wave means that the driver sees me and is willing to wait a few extra moments so I can cross the street in front of their car, even when I don’t have a walk signal or the right of way. What it doesn’t mean, however, is that crossing is safe — or legal.
You see, unless a pedestrian in Minnesota is already crossing the road within a marked crosswalk or at an intersection with no marked crosswalk, the pedestrian does not have the right of way under Minnesota law. The car does.
And when a kind and patient driver waves at a pedestrian, bicyclist, unicyclist or anyone else not in an automobile, signaling them to go ahead and cross the street, that driver is voluntarily giving up the right of way.
They can’t, however, forfeit the right of way for the other drivers on the road — and they can’t ensure that other drivers will see the pedestrian making his or her way across the street. In fact, those other drivers might only see a car that is inexplicably stopped in the middle of the road before they decide to drive around it.
Drivers and pedestrians have no choice but to share the roads with each other, especially in these beautiful summer months when we runners and bikers flock to the sidewalks and narrow shoulders. And in the vast majority of cases, we get along fine. Minnesota drivers are aware that their vehicles are big and dangerous to pedestrians and, as a result, they’re mindful of their surroundings. It’s part of the reason why Minneapolis is known around the world as the friendliest city for bikers.
But, honestly, when you’re driving a car and traffic has the right of way, waving through a pedestrian or bicyclist isn’t friendly. It’s just dangerous.
Brendan Kennealy lives in Bloomington.