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Walking in the street to maintain a safe distance? It could be against the law


This has become a common site in some Portland neighborhoods as people seek space beyond sidewalks.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)


This is the latest in our Get Legal column sponsored by Portland law firm Thomas, Coon, Newton & Frost.

In our current era of widespread “stay home” orders, heading out for a neighborhood walk or jog is among the few available forms of exercise. With relatively high volumes of sidewalk traffic, and a desire to maintain appropriate social distances, many people find it necessary to divert from the sidewalk and walk or run, at least temporarily, in the roadway. People on foot have ample right-of-way protections on sidewalks and when using marked or unmarked crosswalks.

However, when walkers stroll into the roadway, their rights with respect to other road users diminish significantly.

Oregon Revised Statute (ORS) 814.070, “Improper position upon or improperly proceeding along highway,” is a pedestrian-equivalent to Oregon’s “mandatory side path law” for bicyclists. Just as ORS 814.420 requires bicycle riders to use a bicycle lane when one is available (subject to several important exceptions), ORS 814.070 prohibits people on foot from, “Tak[ing] a position upon or proceed[ing] along and upon the roadway where there is an adjacent usable sidewalk or shoulder.”

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“While pedestrians enjoy significant right-of-way protections on the sidewalk and in crosswalks, when otherwise travelling in the roadway they must yield to vehicle users, including drivers and bicycle riders.”

Of course, in the age of mandatory six-foot buffers between sidewalk users, a pedestrian using the roadway could argue that the sidewalk was not “usable” because it was occupied by another (potentially virus-carrying) person. However, even if that person is legally entitled to be in the roadway, ORS 814.040 requires, when outside of marked or unmarked crosswalks, that they “yield the right-of-way to all vehicles upon the roadway.” In other words, while pedestrians enjoy significant right-of-way protections on the sidewalk and in crosswalks, when otherwise travelling in the roadway they must yield to vehicle users, including drivers and bicycle riders.

Chris Thomas

Fortunately, in many parts of Portland, motor vehicle traffic is light, making compliance with Oregon law while in the roadway relatively straightforward. However, in the city’s denser areas, or on streets with high vehicle traffic volumes, pedestrians forced to use the roadway face additional risk of injury without legal recourse.

Interestingly, ORS 814.070 has a section that could address temporarily extended sidewalks, like the ones that have emerged in some cities and here in Portland from a concerned citizen who’s taken things into his own hands. Section 4 of the law says a pedestrian on a “narrow residential roadway” can legally walk in the road if they aren’t creating a “hazard” and if signs have been posted “giving notice that pedestrians may be present upon or along the narrow residential roadway.”

— Chris Thomas, @ChrisThomasPDX on Twitter.
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