The first time my wife and I (inveterate walkers) strolled down Main Street in Orono, shortly after moving here from Syracuse, N.Y., we had a stunning encounter with Maine’s pedestrian laws. The moment we turned to cross the street, expecting to bob and weave our way to the other side like Ratso Rizzo in “Midnight Cowboy,” the cars coming from both directions stopped, allowing us to cross. It seemed mighty civilized to us, coming from an urban setting where we sometimes suspected motorists had cross hairs painted on their windshield so they could aim right for us.
Our experience with cyclists was less inspiring. We were alarmed to see people pedaling toward us on the highway, running traffic lights and stop signs, zipping along in the dark without lights or reflectors and crowding us into the street while they sped by on the sidewalk.
Nine years later, we’re still dodging the cyclists, but we’ve grown increasingly apprehensive about the motorists. On a recent evening, when we stepped into a duly-marked crosswalk, at least eight oncoming cars roared by before one kind driver finally yielded to our frantic attempts to signal our intention to cross the street. As we pondered this disappointing decline in decorum, it seemed like a good time to see what the laws in Maine say should happen when walkers and riders and cars encounter each other. In the interests of public safety and self-preservation, I offer this brief list of legal reminders:
1. When traffic-control devices are not in operation, an operator must yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing within a marked crosswalk.
2. A pedestrian may not cross between adjacent intersections at which traffic-control devices operate, except in a marked crosswalk.
3. When a vehicle is stopped at an intersection or a marked crosswalk to permit a pedestrian to cross, the operator of another vehicle approaching from the rear may not overtake and pass the stopped vehicle.
4. Pedestrians should stay out of a driver’s blind spot at all times, make eye contact with motorists when crossing the street and carry a flashlight at night.
5. If no sidewalk is available, pedestrians should walk against the flow of traffic.
6. Bicyclists may use public roads, and they must obey traffic laws such as stopping at red lights and stop signs, yielding to pedestrians at crosswalks and yielding to traffic when entering a road from a driveway.
7. Bicyclists must ride with traffic, not against it.
8. Bicyclists must have and use headlights at night, as well as rear reflectors and foot, ankle or pedal reflectors.
9. Sidewalk riding is not prohibited by the state, only by local ordinance if it exists.
10. Motorists must give at least three feet of clearance when passing bicyclists.
11. Motorists may open car doors only after checking to see that it can be done safely, without interfering with traffic.
To encourage us all to enjoy our walking, riding and driving safely, state officials offer these sobering statistics: On average, a pedestrian is hit by a motor vehicle in Maine once a day. In the past five years, there have been 1,358 crashes and 51 fatalities involving pedestrians in Maine. And for those of us on foot, there’s this caution: Don’t simply assume that motorists know that by law, pedestrians have the right-of-way. Many of them don’t. Be on guard at all times as a pedestrian. That’s good advice for everyone using the public byways.
I always smile when I drive by the sign along Interstate 95 welcoming everyone to Maine: The Way Life Should Be. I’d feel even better if I knew that all of us agreed that “the way life should be” includes a commitment to courteous coexistence, whether we’re walking or riding or driving.
Mark Kelley is director of journalism at the New England School of Communications in Bangor. Kelley and his wife fantasize about walking Route 1 from Fort Kent to Key West, Fla.