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Are there laws or statutes governing the directing of traffic by citizens or "members of the public"?

A scenario I often encounter is one in which someone — typically another rider or pedestrian in a group that has stopped or slowed at road crossing — will signal an approaching driver to proceed across the flow of bicycle traffic. I realize that people who do this are trying to be helpful or courteous to the drivers, but they do so on behalf of others with whom they have not consulted and who they may not be aware of.

In particular, I'm wondering what the laws are in Massachusetts, though any information about New York City, London, Seattle and Vienna or other areas would be welcome.

Is someone who does this liable in any way for any accidents that might ensue? Are they legally permitted to direct traffic in this way? Do they assume any responsibility for others who may become involved in the consequences of their "traffic direction" (given that those others generally have no idea that such directions have been given)?

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Legally permitted to direct traffic (with force of law), no, not anywhere I'm aware of. That's a state/police reserved power in all cases I can think of.

Could someone do that in an advisory capacity, sure. Are they opening themselves up to liability. Yep. Very much so. Especially since there's no requirement that anyone follow their directions (thus they may appear to be offering "safe crossing" when they have no legal basis to be able to guarantee it).

Don't do it, and use great caution when around people that are doing it.

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Yesterday afternoon during Friday rush hour, I came upon a 2 car head on collision at a blind curve in my area. I am a hospital employee and have training in emergency response so I stopped to help when I saw a young man clutching his eye.

I put on my poncho and did my best to make clear signals to drivers. All the participants were physically fine, but there was a heavy rain and if I hadn't acted, I suspect there would have been a 2 hour line of traffic at best or a series of further collisions at worst. There were no problems, and I left when the police arrived.

As I was leaving, a police officer thanked me but cautioned me that it was a legal liability. My thought on the matter is that if an accident had occurred, it would be because drivers ignored my signaling. So who knows who would be in trouble?

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  • While we generally discourage anecdotes like this on Stack Exchange sites, this one illustrates both your point and the underlying ambiguity very well; thanks for sharing. Commented Apr 21, 2012 at 16:34
  • I did the same about 1 year ago, attempting to flag traffic exiting a 1-lane section of road to the left, passing lane of a 2-lane section of road. There was a trailer that had stopped with a flat tire. My son was laying in the road trying to get it jacked up because we stopped to help the lady and her young son. MOST people moved over, some id10ts nearly hit my son. Don't care what the law is, I was trying to save lives.
    – FreeMan
    Commented Feb 26 at 20:00
  • I should have pulled my vehicle off the shoulder and partially into the lane, but then I would have put my DIL & grandsons at risk, even though the flashers were on.
    – FreeMan
    Commented Feb 26 at 20:01
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My guess is that someone is potentially liable for providing incorrect "direction", though with two (well, three) caveats:

1 - The person taking the "direction" cannot generally absolve themselves from all responsibility.

2 - There may be "Good Samaritan" laws in effect that protect the "director" in some cases (most notably if doing something like directing traffic around an accident).

And --

3 - All of this goes out the window when you understand that, basically, anyone can sue anyone for anything, and you never can predict what a judge and jury are going to decide.

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When I stop for a pedestrian at a crossing, I may hold my hand across the lane to stop cyclists behind me.

Signalling to others is probably legal IMO.

If I'm driving I'd like to take responsibility for my own conduct, and not drive into anyone no matter who or how anyone might signal at me. Every road I've driven on has clear right-of-ways, traffic lights, stops signs.

US law includes the notion of contributory negligence which may apply.

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  • Interesting. I hadn't been looking at it from the driver's perspective. But you're right. I expect that though a driver might make the case that he was signaled to proceed, it was really his responsibility not to.
    – orome
    Commented Oct 9, 2011 at 13:06
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700 CMR 6.0 Police Detail or Flagger defines Law Enforcement and Flaggers in Massachusetts. In order to be Law Enforcement you must have full post certification by the end of June 2024 or be certified as a flagger and follow all rules and regs of the MA DOT including wearing all the mandated PPE and using a stop/slow paddle.

Massachusetts follows all the Federal Rules and Regs under Title 23 of Federal Law known as the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), which is the Federal Bible of everything that takes place on any public roadway. MUTCD Section 6E.07 states

Flaggers shall use a STOP/SLOW paddle, a flag, or an Automated Flagger Assistance Device (AFAD) to control road users approaching a TTC zone. The use of hand movements alone without a paddle, flag, or AFAD to control road users shall be prohibited except for law enforcement personnel or emergency responders at incident scenes as described in Section 6I.01.

Where an incident is described in 6I.01 as "an emergency road user occurrence, a natural disaster, or other unplanned event that affects or impedes the normal flow of traffic."

You are either a fully certified police officer or a MA DOT fully compliant Flagger. The civilian remedy for traffic control is a flagger. There is nothing else in the state or federal law. Town ordinances don't supersede them.

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  • 2
    The title of 700 CMR 6.0 is "Use of Road Flaggers and Police Details on Public Works Projects." It doesn't say anything about the situation the asker describes. It was interesting to see some of the provisions, though. Commented Feb 27 at 18:59
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Since this popped up from the dark woods of the internet: The original question was aimed at Massachusetts laws is but open to information about other regulations, it reminded me of a similar question from last year.

I answered about the situation in Austria (StVO §68), there might be similar regulations in other (European) countries, at least:

Cyclists in groups of ten or more should be allowed to cross an intersection as a group through other vehicle traffic. When entering the intersection, the priority rules applicable to cyclists must be observed; the cyclist in front must use hand signals to signal the end of the group to the other drivers in the crossing area and, if necessary, get off the bicycle. The first and last cyclists in the group must wear a reflective safety vest.

I've seen this in club/touristic road bike group rides with guides, I couldn't clarify if that is only §68 in practical life or there are even extensions for guides, as far I can remember, our guides were certified.

Following up on orome's comment below, §19/8 defines the possibility to waive right of way - that's a more general rule than §68 for closed groups of cyclists.

The driver of a vehicle may waive his right of way, whereby such waiver must be made clearly visible to the person obliged to wait. Bringing a vehicle to a standstill, with the exception of a rail vehicle at stops, for whatever reason, especially in compliance with a legal requirement, is considered a waiver of priority. The person obliged to wait may not assume that a person entitled to priority will waive his or her priority, and in particular he may not assume that if one person entitled to priority waives priority, another person entitled to priority will also waive his or her priority, unless the person obliged to wait is certain that the person entitled to wait has given up priority recognizable. ​

Auto-translation of the final sentence is a bit clumsy but I think this puts responsibility on the driver who was given right of way, you as the driver who was given right of way still have to make sure that others behind also wait for you.

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    Interesting, though the focus of the Austrian law is on a group that (presumably) knows about the person directing them (since they are part of the group). My concern is more about the scenario where some random person waves a care through, oblivious to the fact that there may be other riders behind them.
    – orome
    Commented Feb 28 at 17:15
  • @orome That's definitely aimed at closed groups. I googled a bit more and there is a regulation to give up right of way, but the other party can't assume that, it has to be clearly signaled. That's a thing in Austria traffic regulations. It remains unclear what implications this has for other traffic. For cars it is easy, you probably block off the lane and others can't pass or ignore your actions, they may use their horn to express disagreement. For cyclists, I'd guess it is your fault if you ignore such signal and crash into the car waved through...
    – DoNuT
    Commented Feb 28 at 17:43

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