Pedestrian Laws & Sharing the Road in Washington, D.C.

D.C. pedestrian accidents

Rights and responsibilities for drivers and pedestrians in the District

Pedestrians are safe... as long as they can safely share the road. That means both pedestrians and drivers need to know the road rules, how to apply them, and what to do if an accident happens.
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The more congested the traffic, the more tempting it is to walk where you need to go.

Particularly in an urban area like downtown Washington, D.C., the traffic circles can be confusing, gridlock can be a drag, and sometimes... you just want to walk. Everyone is a pedestrian at some time, even if you’re only walking from the parking lot to a store or from your parking space to your home or office.

It’s impossible to quantify how many people are pedestrians in D.C. during a given year because events, weather, and other circumstances can affect statistics (also, no one walks around taking a headcount).

However, we do know that there were 37 pedestrian fatalities in the District in 2020, which reflects an increase from 27 in 2019. Sixteen fatalities were recorded in just the first 5 months of 2021. (source)

Real Life Example:Here’s a story about a young woman who was crossing a Washington, D.C. intersection and her whole life changed in an instant when she was hit by an SUV.

D.C. pedestrian accidents Read about Tara and her amazing journey to recovery after a pedestrian accident

As a pedestrian, you have both rights and responsibilities.

Enjuris tip:Legally speaking, a pedestrian is considered any person who is walking, on roller skates, a skateboard, hoverboard, or another moving object, in a wheelchair or using a tricycle or other similar device that’s not a standard bicycle.

A car doesn’t need to be moving at a high speed in order to kill or severely injure a pedestrian. Its weight and force is enough to cause significant damage even if the car is moving at a low speed.

Washington, D.C. rules for drivers and pedestrians

Sidewalks The pedestrian always has a right of way on a sidewalk in D.C.
Right on red A pedestrian in a crosswalk has the right of way before a driver turning right on red.
Turning on green A driver must yield to a pedestrian who has already begun to cross on their correct walk signal.
Walking on the road A pedestrian may not walk on the road where there is a sidewalk. If there is no sidewalk, the pedestrian must walk on the left side facing traffic.
Diagonal crossing A pedestrian is not permitted to cross an intersection diagonally.
Crosswalks A pedestrian must yield right of way to a vehicle if the person is crossing outside of a crosswalk. If a pedestrian is crossing at a crosswalk without a signal, the pedestrian has the right of way but should be careful to look for traffic.

Who is liable in a D.C. pedestrian accident?

A pedestrian can be injured by a car, bicyclist, motorized scooter or even another pedestrian. There’s also the possibility of a pedestrian being injured by a property hazard, like a falling tree branch, potholes, broken sidewalks or steps, or other issues. If that happens, liability would be on the property owner or government agency that maintains the road or sidewalk.

Ultimately, the standard for liability and negligence in an accident involving a pedestrian and a vehicle is the same as any other personal injury.

The injured pedestrian needs to prove 4 elements to recover in a personal injury lawsuit:

  1. The driver owed the pedestrian a duty of care.
  2. The driver breached the duty of care because they were negligent.
  3. The driver’s negligence caused the pedestrian’s injury.
  4. The pedestrian’s injury cost money.

Every person owes a duty to other people around them. Every driver on the road has a duty to be aware of other vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians. In other words, a driver has a responsibility or obligation to be careful, aware, and generally safe on the road.

Pure contributory negligence

Pure contributory negligence is the standard in D.C. (as well as Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia).

Under this negligence standard, if a plaintiff (the injured person) had any liability for the accident, they cannot recover damages.

In some states, a plaintiff’s amount of damages is reduced by their percentage of fault (for instance, if you’re found to be 20% liable for the accident, your damages would be reduced by 20%).

In most auto accidents in D.C., you can’t recover damages at all, even if your percentage of fault is very low.

However, in 2016, the Council of the District of Columbia changed the contributory negligence law for pedestrians.

Under the new law, a pedestrian who is 50% liable or less may recover 100% of their damages.

Here’s an example of how this could affect your claim:

Penny Pedestrian lived near Logan Circle. She would take her morning walk from her neighborhood to the Ellipse and back. Her normal route was by way of Vermont Avenue and she knew it well. Since it was her “down time” for the day, Penny would use the opportunity to call her mom in New Jersey to check in.

One day, Penny was walking and chatting with her mom when she passed a parking garage on Vermont. Commuter Carlos had put in a long all-nighter at work and was leaving in the morning to finally go home for some rest.

As Carlos was pulling out of the garage, he hit Penny, who was walking by on the sideway. She suffered a broken leg and some other non-life threatening injuries.

Carlos was, admittedly, exhausted. He had been at his office for more than 24 straight hours and hadn’t had any sleep. He acknowledged after the accident that he might have taken a “long blink” as he was coming out of the garage and could have been on the cusp of nodding off.

Although Carlos was clearly responsible for the accident, Penny was animatedly talking on the phone and she wasn’t exactly paying attention to where she was going because she knew her route so well.

The insurance company found that Penny was 35% liable for the accident. If she had been paying attention, she would have seen Carlos’ car emerging from the garage exit and could have stopped for a moment in order to avoid being hit.

Under D.C.’s 2016 law, Penny would be able to recover damages for all of the proven expenses for her claim. If, however, Penny had been found 51% liable, she would not be able to recover any damages.

Your lawyer will look for answers to these questions after a pedestrian accident:

  1. Was your accident preventable?
  2. Was the accident caused by the driver’s (or someone else’s) negligence?
  3. Is anyone besides the driver at fault for the accident?
  4. Are you responsible for any aspect of the accident?
  5. Are you entitled to financial compensation?

Common causes of pedestrian accidents include:

  1. The driver did not stop at a red light or stop sign.
  2. The driver turned through a crosswalk.
  3. The driver did not look for pedestrians when backing up.
  4. The driver was speeding.
  5. The driver was distracted, either by texting or something else.

Examples of driver negligence

There are lots of ways a driver can be negligent, but here are just a few examples:

  • Speeding
  • Failing to stop at a traffic light or stop sign
  • Failing to give a pedestrian enough room to enter or exit a parked car
  • Failing to move over or slow down for a person in the break-down lane
  • Texting and driving, or other distracted driving
  • Driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol

Damages for injuries from a pedestrian accident

“Damages” is the legal term for the money you can receive as a result of an injury because of someone else’s negligence.

The goal of a personal injury case is to make a plaintiff “whole” again or restore them to the financial position they would be in if the accident hadn’t happened.

Damages after a pedestrian accident commonly include compensation for:

  • Medical treatment, including doctor and hospital visits, surgeries, prescription medications, physical or other ongoing therapies, assistive devices like a wheelchair, etc.
  • Lost wages for the time you were out of work during your recovery.
  • Loss of earning capacity, which is future earnings. If the accident left you disabled in a way that prevents you from returning to the job you had before the accident, or your physical recovery will be ongoing and you’re not able to work, you can recover damages for the costs of what you would have earned if the accident had not happened.
  • Pain and suffering, if your injury was very severe.
  • Wrongful death, if you’re the surviving family member of a person who died as a result of a pedestrian accident.
  • Property damage recovery in a pedestrian accident is unusual. But, if you’re carrying a laptop or some other piece of expensive equipment, you could be compensated for the replacement or repair value.
  • Punitive damages are rare in a personal injury case. They can be awarded in addition to your damages as punishment for a defendant who has acted especially egregiously or maliciously. It’s meant to be a deterrent to others from repeating the behavior.
Enjuris tip:Washington, D.C. does not have statutory damage caps, or maximum award amounts. It’s up to a jury to decide how much compensation to award.

Premises liability claims

Not all pedestrian injuries are caused by cars.

Premises liability law covers accidents caused by a hazardous condition on property. For a pedestrian, this might mean a broken or cracked sidewalk, falling tree branches, holes or poorly marked edges, or obstacles that could cause a person to fall or become injured.

If the property owner negligently maintained the area, you might have a claim if you were legally permitted to be there. This might apply to injuries that happen in places such as a privately-owned supermarket or office building parking lots, for example. If you’re injured on private property, you’d make a claim to the owner of the property.

But if you’re injured as a pedestrian on a street, it would depend on who’s responsible for maintaining that section of the road. Usually, it will be the property owner, or a local government or municipality.

Enjuris tip:The laws for suing a government agency are different from how you’d file a claim against a private party. It’s more complex and there could be additional steps, so you’d want to consult a lawyer to find out the best way to make a claim.

10 safety tips for pedestrians

  1. Always cross at a corner or intersection and use a marked crosswalk where available.
  2. Yield the right-of-way to a vehicle if crossing where there’s not a marked crosswalk.
  3. Before crossing, look left, then right, then left again to check for cars.
  4. Walk facing traffic.
  5. Obey traffic signals and walk signs.
  6. Be alert — don’t text or be occupied on your phone while walking.
  7. If you’re wearing a listening device, either keep 1 ear “free” or the volume low enough that you can still hear outside noise like traffic.
  8. Wear reflective clothing when walking at night and carry a flashlight.
  9. Avoid walking while intoxicated; impairment can increase your risk of being hit by a car.
  10. Walk on the sidewalk or designated walking area where one is available. If there isn’t a sidewalk, stay as far to the left as possible.

What to do if you’re injured in a pedestrian accident in D.C.

  1. Seek medical help. Call 911 for medical help. If you’re unable to do so, ask a driver or bystander to call for you.

    It’s important to get a medical examination as soon as possible, even if you think your injuries are so minor that you don’t require treatment. Visit your doctor, an urgent care center or a hospital. Symptoms of some serious injuries might not appear for days or weeks after the accident, so documenting your condition immediately after the accident is crucial for an insurance settlement or legal claim.
  2. Call the police. A police report is essential and should contain the driver’s information, the facts of the accident, a description of the scene, and other information that will be important to your claim.
Enjuris tip:The other driver might feel terrible about what happened, especially if they were at fault. The person might apologize and offer to pay out-of-pocket for your damages — and maybe they will. But you still need to get a police report.

It doesn’t necessarily mean the person will face any charges, especially if they weren’t violating any traffic laws. But don’t let them convince you that a police report isn’t necessary. It’s your right (and for your own protection) to get one.
  1. Obtain witness contact information. Witnesses can be the most valuable tool in a legal claim. Write down each witness’s name, phone number, and email address.
  2. Document the scene. If can do so safely, take photos of the road conditions, traffic signals, any damage to the vehicle, and other factors that might have affected the accident.
  3. Contact a personal injury lawyer. A reputable law firm has access to reconstruction experts, financial professionals, medical experts, and other experts who can bolster your claim for relief and help you to receive the maximum benefit to cover your injuries.


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