In light of the August death of a University student at a Plymouth Road crosswalk, Ann Arbor’s current crosswalk ordinance has raised questions among the public and City Council as many legislators are working to revise or repeal the ordinance.

When the current law was passed in 2012, it was considered an improvement over the previous ordinance, which required drivers to stop for pedestrians “approaching” the crosswalk. Some considered the wording too ambiguous to follow or enforce.

Today, Ann Arbor has an ordinance that is distinct from the Michigan Uniform Traffic Code. A memorandum to councilmembers from Nick Hutchinson, manager of the city’s Project Management Unit, illustrated the differences in the wording of the two laws. The MUTC wording requires drivers to stop or slow for any pedestrian on a crosswalk, while Ann Arbor’s ordinance requires yielding to any pedestrian at the edge of a crosswalk or on a curb.

However, both citizens and elected officials have taken issue with the poor wording of the current ordinance and its variance from the state standard. The current ordinance even contradicts many instructions on street signs throughout the city.

Councilmember Jane Lumm (I–Ward 2) said oftentimes when a city has a varying ordinance from the state-standard code, it’s just “asking for trouble.” She added that the current wording gives too much power to pedestrians and often requires abrupt stops by drivers trying to comply with the code.

Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy (D–Ward 1) echoed Lumm’s remarks, saying the loosely worded city ordinance sends the wrong message to pedestrians, especially children.

“Telling kids, ‘You guys rule on the road,’ is really treachery,” Kailasapathy said.

Both Lumm and Kailasapathy added that limited police resources and insufficient clarity in the ordinance have made enforcement difficult.

Some roads, including Plymouth, are equipped with pedestrian-activated warning lights at crosswalks to remind drivers to stop for pedestrians. However, Lumm said these lights are an unfamiliar street signal for many drivers and have caused numerous minor incidents as drivers make sudden stops on a busy road.

Lumm and Kailasapathy both noted that having a unique crosswalk law is particularly difficult in a city like Ann Arbor where the population has a high turnover rate.

Rather than citing the wording of the law as the overarching issue, Eli Cooper, Ann Arbor’s transportation program manager, said the problem lies with the responsibility of motorists and pedestrians to be more conscious of each other.

Cooper said campus pedestrians are often “plugged in and tuned out” — distracted by phones and other devices — but doubts many pedestrians actually step out directly in front of oncoming traffic since over the past decade crash numbers haven’t increased significantly. He’d be surprised if changing the wording of the law will be as helpful as increasing education and awareness.

“The crux of the issue is not the words on the page, it’s the behavior in the street,” Cooper said. “I’m going to respectfully agree to disagree that merely reverting to some earlier formulation in an ordinance is going to automatically make everything better.”

Kathy Griswold, a former Ann Arbor school board member, spoke last week at the City Council meeting in favor of eliminating Ann Arbor’s ordinance and simply complying with MUTC code. Griswold said in an interview that the current law is not based on engineering analysis but simply prioritizing pedestrians’ rights.

“Unfortunately, I think that in Ann Arbor we’re an intellectual community and that this is just a symptom of how Ann Arbor frequently operates,” Griswold said. “We try to intellectualize a problem that really is a concrete physical problem.”

Councilmember Kailasapathy said she is a firm supporter of dropping the Ann Arbor ordinance in favor of the MUTC code and Lumm said she, along with many others on the council, is likely leaning that way as well. Council members will meet with city administrators on Sept. 27 to discuss options. Lumm said the earliest date to expect a vote on the issue would be about a month from now.

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