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In this article reporting on a Tesla in Full Self Driving (FSD) mode in California, the car is shown approaching a pedestrian crossing when a person steps on to it from the opposite side of the road. The Tesla detects the pedestrian, but elects to continue through the crossing without stopping (presumably because the pedestrian was not on their side of the road).

Various comments to that article state that what the Tesla did was illegal. But in my various googling attempts, I have not found any source that definitely states that the car has to stop. For example, the CA DMV Drivers handbook says:

When there is a pedestrian crossing a roadway with or without a crosswalk, you must use caution, reduce your speed, or stop to allow the pedestrian to safely finish crossing.

The use of "or" here seems to imply that stopping is optional (of course I assume that means only if you have taken due care/caution)

But some of the commentators quote this from the same DMV handbook:

Pedestrians have the right-of-way in marked or unmarked crosswalks. If there is a limit line before the crosswalk, stop at the limit line and allow pedestrians to cross the street.

And take it to imply that the Tesla should have stopped because the crossing does have a "limit line".

My question is pretty simple. Did the Tesla break an actual law in California? Or is it simply a dick move that technically is not illegal?

Given the specificity of this video, I'm only really looking for answers that relate to California. I know that in other jurisdictions in the US and in other countries there may be other definitions of legality - which does make producing generic software for an automated car rather complex.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Law Meta, or in Law Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Dale M
    May 17, 2023 at 0:18
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    Terminology technicality - Can an inanimate object (the Tesla) ever be said to be "acting illegally"? Even with the loosened definition of a "person" which gives "personhood" to corporations, I don't see that extending to a vehicle (at least not until the AI becomes self-aware :P). It's the driver of the Tesla who is supposed to remain in control who would be acting illegally by not overriding the Tesla's self-driving computer.
    – brhans
    May 17, 2023 at 17:47

3 Answers 3

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I am aware of a view of the California law that if a pedestrian looks like they might want to cross the street, any car must stop, but this is not supported by the law, which is about "yielding". The law incorporates both "yield" and "stop", the former being "and allow the other person to proceed". Ignoring the photo for a moment, the requirement to yield (not stop) allows a car to continue driving when the driver is e.g. 10 ft from the crosswalk and the pedestrian is three lanes over when they enter the crosswalk, remaining in compliance with the law. The pedestrian and the driven can continue with their journey because there is no conflict.

The requirement to yield states whose right to proceed is subordinated to the other person's, in case of conflict. Turning to the video which shows what is in front but not behind, it is evident that the vehicle did not actually conflict with the pedestrian, who did not slow down in order to let the vehicle pass. The violation of social conventions is clear, in that the pedestrian enters the crosswalk while the car is 5 or so car lengths back, and can safely slow down so that there would be zero chance of hitting the pedestrian (it starts to slow but only trivially one the pedestrian is visibly 'crossing the street'). As far as I can determine, California case law has not established any numbers that constitute "not yielding". While I would stop in this circumstance, I don't see that there is a conflict between the pedestrian and the vehicle.

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When there is a pedestrian crossing a roadway with or without a crosswalk, you must use caution, reduce your speed, or stop to allow the pedestrian to safely finish crossing.

The Tesla in this video did not allow the pedestrian to safely finish crossing, regardless of what else it did. Stopping is not required by this rule - if you can merely slow down and allow the pedestrian to finish crossing, you may. But regardless of whether you stop, slow down, or do nothing but use caution, you must allow the pedestrian to finish crossing.

In terms of California code, we have this, emphasis mine:

The driver of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within any marked crosswalk or within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection, except as otherwise provided in this chapter.

The Tesla failed to yield the right-of-way to the pedestrian crossing the roadway within the marked crosswalk, and I find no relevant exceptions. The discussions of whether stopping is required and whether there's a limit line are actually irrelevant - regardless of whether you stop or if there's a limit line, you must yield the right of way to the pedestrian. You can yield without stopping, and still must yield whether there's a limit line or not.

There is continued discussion about what it means to "yield the right-of-way" to a pedestrian. I can't find anything specific to CA law, but here is the NJ law for reference: "The driver of a vehicle shall stop and remain stopped to allow a pedestrian to cross the roadway within a marked crosswalk, when the pedestrian is upon, or within one lane of, the half of the roadway, upon which the vehicle is traveling or onto which it is turning." In such a jurisdiction, not stopping for a pedestrian in the crosswalk, even if they are on the other side a two-lane street, is a failure to yield. I doubt that other states don't require you to yield to pedestrians until the point they are already in your lane of travel.

To the downvoters, what's incorrect here? I'm baffled by the perspective that a 2mph reduction in speed while driving through the crosswalk before the pedestrian could be considered yielding the right-of-way to the pedestrian. The fact that the Tesla could get through the crosswalk without hitting the pedestrian is neither an indication that it yielded, nor that it did not have to yield.

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  • @MichaelHall What are you expecting, that they've greased up their pedals for unknown reasons, or that they're engaging in attempted murder? May 17, 2023 at 2:46
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    @MichaelHall In some places "yielding to a pedestrian" requires allowing the pedestrian to go first, so long as they are within one lane of you. On a two-lane road in such a jurisdiction, so long as the pedestrian has entered the crosswalk, it's not possible for a car to yield by going first. NJ, for example: "The driver of a vehicle shall stop and remain stopped to allow a pedestrian to cross the roadway within a marked crosswalk, when the pedestrian is upon, or within one lane of, the half of the roadway, upon which the vehicle is traveling or onto which it is turning." May 17, 2023 at 12:26
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Upon reviewing the footage, we observe that the vehicle in question approaches a pedestrian crossing in the pedestrian lane from the driver's left in a 2 lane bi-directional road with a clearly visble yellow line dividing opposing directional traffic. As visual confirmed and instrumentally confirmed, while the pedestrian is in view of the car's forward motion, the pedestrian at no point crosses the Yellow line into the the direction for the vehicle's forward direction. Instruments onboard the vehicle clearly demonstrate that it is tracking the pedestrian's movement and confirm that the pedestrian has not crossed the yellow line before the vehicle has exited the crosswalk space.

We can also see that there is no signage indicating a stop is required by the vehicle. The only signage are two yellow signs alerting drivers to the crosswalk on either side of the road. Additionally, a temporary yellow sign has been erected in the center of the crosswalk which contains the traffic symbols for yeild and the symbol for pedestrian on a white field. Additionally on the white field between the two symbols word of two three letters can be made out, but the footage is not of significant quality to read the letters. It likely is the word is either "to" or "for". Above the white field additional letters, which upon close view, Spell the words "State Law". The combined message of the temporary signage thus indicates in full: "State Law Yeild to/for Pedestrians".

U.S. Driving Laws tend to be universal and it is advised that drivers are to follow the rules of the road as indicated by all signage and Law Enforcement Officers instructions. When the instructions are in conflict with the law, instructions on temporary signage is considered to override permeant signage, and LEO or Construction safety personal instructions override all signage. As such, this indicates that the public may yield to pedestrians rather than stop.

The California Driver's Handbook indicates that the legal definition of yield signs is

Slow down and be ready to stop to let any vehicle, bicyclist, or pedestrian pass before you proceed.

If converted to a traffic light, Yield corresponds to the Yellow light, which is a warning to motorists that they are about to lose the right of way through the intersection. At this point, the motorist must make an educated choice to proceed through the intersection or stop. The deciding factor should be if you are unable to stop prior to entering the intersection.

Since you must slow for a yield in preparation for the stop, we turn back to the vehicle's instruments to see if the vehicle was responsive. While the vehicle at no point indicates that the the sign was observed and acted on, we can see at the video start that the vehicle is traveling at a speed of 26 mph. As it approaches the crosswalk and registers the pedestrian, the speed drops to 24 mph which it continues to travel at as it leaves the crosswalk and for the duration of the video beyond that.

Assuming that the sign was erected by an agent of the state acting within lawful reason, the sign would supersede any signage that would require a full and complete stop by permanent signage, which does not exists, or the legal requirement, which is also not supported by the cited California law, which indicates that one need not stop at a crosswalk so long as one is prepared to should a pedestrian cross the crosswalk. It also makes no law that the right of way is yielded while a pedestrian is in the crosswalk. Presumably the oncoming traffic would resume forward motion the moment that the pedestrian is clear of their lane of travel provided no other pedestrian is in the space. Only with stop lights with a solid red light does traffic lose right of way for the duration of the light's cycle regardless of the presence of or lack of presence of cross traffic. For signs or flashing traffic lights, the Right of Way is yeilded to the oncoming traffic for the durration of time that traffic is present in the intersection. Such features are not present here.

As such, without any further evince, it is clear that the self-driving car was acting within the confines of the law in this instance. Where I the judge of this case, I would rule in favor of the party legally responsible for the car's driving but would find sufficient cause for an investigation into the self-driving car's programing to determine to what degree, if any, it took the temporary sign into consideration when making this determination, and if it would alter its behavior had the instructions been different.

Edit: While I am not a lawyer or judge, I do have experience in coding autonomous vehicles, specifically with relation to how such vehicles should interpret visual traffic control indicators that a lidar system (used to detect the pedestrian) alone would not pick up. My particular work was with a vehicle that used lidar, live video processing, and GPS inputs to inform its decision making and whether the vehicle was safe to move or needed to turn around and find another route.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Law Meta, or in Law Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Dale M
    May 17, 2023 at 0:20
  • Hi. I'm a bit confused by this answer. The answer appears to rely mainly on the fact that the pedestrian didn't cross the "yellow line dividing opposing directional traffic". However, if the car acted dangerously or illegally in any way and refused to yield to the pedestrian, then isn't it logical that the pedestrian didn't cross that line? It seems that this is just the pedestrian being careful. But this still leaves the pedestrian stranded in the middle of the road, which is dangerous, and appears to be directly in contradiction with the car driver's duty to yield to the pedestrian?
    – Stef
    Jan 13 at 18:19
  • To summarise my previous comment, which admittedly is a bit long: could you please clarify why the pedestrian's carefulness and avoidance to cross the yellow line is an argument in favour of the car being allowed to not yield to the pedestrian?
    – Stef
    Jan 13 at 18:20

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