Those Pesky Pedestrians

Who’s at fault when a car hits a jaywalker??

Super Admin
4-minute read

Hello, and welcome to Legal Lad’s Quick and Dirty Tips for a More Lawful Life. I’m your host, Adam Freedman

But first, your daily dose of legalese: This post does not create an attorney-client relationship with any listener. In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer. In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.    

Today we cover: Those Pesky Pedestrians

Ariadne writes:

I live in a Kansas college town with a quaint downtown area.  The pedestrians down here ignore the pedestrian walk signals all the time.  Many times, they won't even use the painted crosswalk lines in the road.  Is it illegal for me to hit jaywalkers with my car?

The short answer is: I wouldn’t make a point of it. Seriously, hitting jaywalkers with your car can get you into a heap of trouble. Although Ariadne might have posed her question in jest (at least, I hope so), it raises some genuine legal issues.

Now I know that jaywalkers can be annoying, but Ariadne’s quaint college town would probably be a lot less quaint if motorists were free to create their very own version of Death Race.

The fact is, any car accident can expose the driver to both criminal and civil liability. First let’s consider criminal law. Granted, there’s no specific crime for mowing down jaywalkers; however, if you cause a pedestrian’s death you may be charged with Vehicular Homicide – that’s the general name for state laws that criminalize negligent or reckless driving that leads to a person’s death.

Generally speaking, vehicular homicide laws require proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the driver failed to recognize a substantial risk that would have been apparent to a reasonable person. Sometimes, the standard is higher and requires proof that the driver actually did recognize the risk and disregarded it anyway. In most states, proof that the driver was under the influence of alcohol or drugs will suffice to establish vehicular homicide. 

These same standards will apply even if you don’t cause the pedestrian’s death. You won’t be charged with Vehicular Homicide, but will most likely be charged under your state’s criminal negligence law. So again, the issue will be whether you failed to recognize the risk, or whether you recognized the risk and disregarded it. 

The fact that the pedestrian was jaywalking will be relevant to the issue of the driver’s negligence. The ordinary reasonable person is not expected to be constantly prepared for pedestrians walking willy-nilly onto crowded streets. And so, whether a driver was criminally negligent or reckless may turn on such factors as how suddenly the pedestrian entered the road, the conditions of the road, the time of day, and how much time the driver had to stop. 

And so, while Ariadne has identified an interesting issue, I’m not sure she’s looking at it the right way. Later in her email she asks: