November 4


How Pedestrians Can Legally Avoid Traffic Signals

By Mike Spack

November 4, 2015

crossing, Intersection, Pedestrian, pedestrian crossing, traffic control signal

Cross Walk SignalI’ve been walking to work every day now for a couple of years.  I also have a bunch of places I walk to within half a mile of the office (including Starbucks and Caribou Coffee).  I believe my 3-5 miles of walking a day puts me near the top of the list of traffic engineers when it comes to the amount of miles walked per year.

To get to a coffee shop, I need to walk through several traffic signals and I’ve just hit my threshold with our walk/don’t walk indications. Very few people outside our profession understand the indications (except our spouses/children who have to put up with our answers to their rhetorical traffic questions).

Proof that the indications don’t make sense is that we add signs/stickers to signal poles to try to explain the system and we even go so far as to tack on countdown timers.  A good system, like red/yellow/green, doesn’t need explanation.

Now we even have audible systems that yell “wait” at me every three seconds after I push the push button.  (I’d be a lot more inclined to obey if they could get my Mom to do the voiceover work.)

I’ve done some digging into Minnesota’s laws to try to understand the pedestrian indications better.  My conclusion is that I can legally ignore the pedestrian indications in just about every place I walk in Minnesota. (I’m not a lawyer nor do I play one on TV or the internet – please consult a licensed attorney for legal advice):

  • Obeying Traffic-Control Signals. To start with, Statute 169.21 below makes it pretty clear that pedestrians need to obey traffic control signals at intersections and cars need to reasonably yield to pedestrians outside of traffic signal controlled intersections.
  • Crossing Between Intersections. Subdivision 3 of Statute 169.21 below makes it clear that pedestrians have the right to cross midblock as long as they yield to the vehicles. EXCEPT if they’re on a road between two signalized intersections.  Then they need to go and obey the traffic signal.
  • Definitions of an Intersection. I did further digging for the definition of “intersection,” which led me to needing to figure out the legal definitions of Intersection, Highways, Streets or Highways, and Vehicles per Statute 196.011 below.
  • Interpretation of Intersections. By my reading of these definitions, all driveways, alleys, streets, etc can form an intersection. (One gray area is related to driveways – I’d argue a driveway to a Walmart is open to the public while a driveway to a single family home is not). Except at freeway interchange bridges, I know of very few corridors that have two signals in a row with no driveways or alleys between the signalized intersections.  This is especially true in pedestrian friendly areas. Also, my reading of the statutes below tells me an intersection legally ends where the exiting curb radius ends.

So, as a pedestrian, I believe in Minnesota:

  1. Cars need to yield to me at all intersections and marked crosswalks that aren’t at a signalized intersection.
  2. If I choose to cross at a signalized crossing, I should wait for the signal (walk or flashing don’t walk indication).
  3. I can cross just about any street I want outside of a signalized intersection as long as I yield to traffic.
  4. To get outside of a signalized intersection, I need to move to the end of the curb radius before crossing.

This means I’m not going to wait around at traffic signals if I believe I can safely cross (usually there are plenty of safe gaps in my neighborhood).

Now, where things get really messy, the definition of a vehicle (Subdivision 92.Vehicle below) – if I’m walking, am I legally in a vehicle if I’m wearing shoes?

Bryant Ficek’s Take: We’ve all seen people crossing mid-block or walking directly between shops even if that meant a diagonal path across the road. It happens. But they, and Mike, may be onto something. There are several advantages to avoiding a signalized intersection when walking, including:

  • Shorter crossing distance; only through lanes compared to through lanes and turn lanes at the intersection
  • Pedestrians are able to focus on only one or two directions of traffic rather than accounting for all turning traffic
  • Drivers can better focus on the pedestrian rather than the signal or turning cars
  • Divided roads will have usually a larger median away from the intersection, which means a better refuge between directions of travel

And I’ve seen Mike run.  He’s definitely not fast enough to be considered a vehicle.

Minnesota State Statutes:  169.21 PEDESTRIAN.

Subdivision 1.   Obey Traffic-Control Signals.

Pedestrians shall be subject to traffic-control signals at intersections as heretofore declared in this chapter, but at all other places pedestrians shall be accorded the privileges and shall be subject to the restrictions stated in this section and section 169.22.

Subdivision 2.   Rights in Absence of Signal.

(a) Where traffic-control signals are not in place or in operation, the driver of a vehicle shall stop to yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within a marked crosswalk or at an intersection with no marked crosswalk. The driver must remain stopped until the pedestrian has passed the lane in which the vehicle is stopped. No pedestrian shall suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is impossible for the driver to yield. This provision shall not apply under the conditions as otherwise provided in this subdivision.

(b) When any vehicle is stopped at a marked crosswalk or at an intersection with no marked crosswalk to permit a pedestrian to cross the roadway, the driver of any other vehicle approaching from the rear shall not overtake and pass the stopped vehicle.

(c) It is unlawful for any person to drive a motor vehicle through a column of school children crossing a street or highway or past a member of a school safety patrol or adult crossing guard, while the member of the school safety patrol or adult crossing guard is directing the movement of children across a street or highway and while the school safety patrol member or adult crossing guard is holding an official signal in the stop position. A peace officer may arrest the driver of a motor vehicle if the peace officer has probable cause to believe that the driver has operated the vehicle in violation of this paragraph within the past four hours.

(d) A person who violates this subdivision is guilty of a misdemeanor. A person who violates this subdivision a second or subsequent time within one year of a previous conviction under this subdivision is guilty of a gross misdemeanor.


Subdivision 3.  Crossing Between Intersections.

(a) Every pedestrian crossing a roadway at any point other than within a marked crosswalk or at an intersection with no marked crosswalk shall yield the right-of-way to all vehicles upon the roadway.

(b) Any pedestrian crossing a roadway at a point where a pedestrian tunnel or overhead pedestrian crossing has been provided shall yield the right-of-way to all vehicles upon the roadway.

(c) Between adjacent intersections at which traffic-control signals are in operation pedestrians shall not cross at any place except in a marked crosswalk.

(d) Notwithstanding the other provisions of this section every driver of a vehicle shall (1) exercise due care to avoid colliding with any bicycle or pedestrian upon any roadway and (2) give an audible signal when necessary and exercise proper precaution upon observing any child or any obviously confused or incapacitated person upon a roadway.


Minnesota State Statutes:  196.011

Subdivision 36.  Intersection.

(a) “Intersection” means the area embraced within the prolongation or connection of the lateral curb lines or, if none, then the lateral boundary lines of the roadways of two highways which join one another at, or approximately at, right angles or the area within which vehicles traveling upon different highways joining at any other angle may come in conflict.

(b) Where a highway includes two roadways 30 feet or more apart, then every crossing of each roadway of such divided highway by an intersecting highway shall be regarded as a separate intersection. In the event such intersecting highway also includes two roadways 30 feet or more apart, then every crossing of two roadways of such highways shall be regarded as a separate intersection.

Subdivision 81.  Street or Highway.

“Street or highway” means the entire width between boundary lines of any way or place when any part thereof is open to the use of the public, as a matter of right, for the purposes of vehicular traffic.

Subdivision 92.Vehicle.

“Vehicle” means every device in, upon, or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a highway, excepting devices used exclusively upon stationary rails or tracks.


  • I used to just walk going to and from work, and have always abode by the rules regarding traffic signs and signals. If I were any pedestrian, I would simply obey these rules to avoid an accident. Good article, though.

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    Mike Spack

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