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In Defense of Jaywalking

Slate: In Defense of Jaywalking

Banning the practice won’t make pedestrians safer.

By Tom Vanderbilt
Posted Monday, Nov. 2, 2009, at 4:01 PM ET

Looking at any number of big-city dailies over the last few weeks, one might reasonably surmise that we are in the middle of a new public-health epidemic with an old name: jaywalking.

A columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, commenting on a report on the city’s most dangerous intersections, wrote: "[I]s it any surprise that three of the top four are near Sixth and Market streets, the home of the lackadaisical jaywalker? Seriously, how often have you seen someone there walk out into traffic against the light, confidently assuming that the car will stop?" In Boston, meanwhile, the Globe sounded exasperated about how "throngs of iPod-wearing, cellphone-texting walkers blew through the red ’Don’t walk’ signs, barely acknowledging the flustered drivers who slammed on the brakes and banged on their dashboards in futility." In New York, the Post bemoaned "jaywalking’s steep toll," calling it a "foolish practice" that "needs to stop."

These accounts—which are typically combined with grim statistics on pedestrian deaths and injuries, but no deeper analysis—could well leave casual readers with the impression that jaywalking is the single greatest risk to the urban pedestrian, that pedestrians wantonly solicit injuries and death with their depraved behavior, and that properly corralling pedestrians could solve all our traffic safety problems.

All of which is wrong. Certainly, there are egregious jaywalkers who defy logic and physics in their wayward perambulations. (Many of these are drunk people; as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration notes, "about 25 percent of fatally injured pedestrians have a BAC greater than .20"). And, conversely, there are also careful jaywalkers, like myself, who frankly find the notion of waiting for a signal when no cars are in sight to be faintly ridiculous and anti-urban.
But the facts simply do not support the idea that jaywalking is the greatest danger pedestrians face, and that drivers should be let off the hook. In San Francisco, for example, a report by the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency looking at collisions in 2007 found that cases of drivers violating the pedestrian’s right of way were more common than pedestrians violating that of drivers. In New York City the Post, quoting numbers from the DoT, said 50 jaywalkers were killed annually; this is a high number to be sure, but just one-fourth the total pedestrian death toll.

And numbers are only the half of it, because they rarely do justice to the complexity of the pedestrian safety issue—often they do it an injustice. It’s not uncommon to find statements such as this, from a law enforcement magazine: "A study out of Florida revealed that pedestrians are at fault 80 percent of the time." Such lines suggest the answer is simple: Let’s crack down on dangerous walkers! But the truth is more complicated, and fault is a word rarely used by traffic safety professionals. Florida is, first of all, a generally terrible place to be a pedestrian: One survey of pedestrian danger found that half of the nation’s 10 most dangerous places for pedestrians were in the Sunshine State. Are the people of Florida overwhelmingly predisposed to careless pedestrianism? Of course not. The real problem is that Florida doesn’t offer many ways for pedestrians to safely navigate its streets. (And moreover throws a lot of dangerous drivers their way; in 2007 its alcohol-impaired fatality rate, adjusted for miles driven, was more than twice as high as the state with the lowest rate.)

Facts like these tend to trickle into, and corrupt, crash-reporting statistics. As the Surface Transportation Policy Project points out, "a cursory glance at state and national statistics reveals a substantial number of pedestrian fatalities occur outside a crosswalk. Yet a closer look at national data shows that 59 percent of pedestrian deaths for which location information was recorded happened in places where pedestrians had no convenient access to a crosswalk. While jaywalking is often cited as a cause of pedestrian accidents, less than 20 percent of fatalities occurred where a pedestrian was crossing outside an easily available crosswalk." And police, who largely tend to be in vehicles, often misinterpret such subtleties or exhibit a pronounced pro-driver bias. And so it’s not uncommon to hear statements like he "came out of nowhere," when in fact the pedestrian was crossing legally. In many cases, the pedestrian is no longer around to offer a rebuttal.

The very word jaywalk is an interesting—and not historically neutral—one. Originally an insult against bumptious "jays" from the country who ineptly gamboled on city sidewalks, it was taken up by a coalition of pro-automobile interests in the 1920s, notes historian Peter D. Norton in his book Fighting Traffic. "Before the American city could be physically reconstructed to accommodate automobiles, its streets had to be socially reconstructed as places where cars belong," he writes. "Until then, streets were regarded as public spaces, where practices that endangered or obstructed others (including pedestrians) were disreputable. Motorists’ claim to street space was therefore fragile, subject to restrictions that threatened to negate the advantages of car ownership." And so, where newspapers like the New York Times once condemned the "slaughter of pedestrians" by cars and defended the right to midblock crossings—and where cities like Cincinnati weighed imposing speed "governors" for cars—after a few decades, the focus of attention had shifted from marauding motorists onto the reckless "jaywalker."

That pattern continues, and today the word jaywalking is often used as a sort of blanket justification for the dominating presence of cars on city streets. It also reflects a social bias against those people not in cars. (Note this comment in a Federal Highway Administration report: "Still, almost no one can avoid occasional pedestrian status," as if they were discussing exposure to a venereal disease.) It’s also used to shift blame entirely to the pedestrian when drivers may have had what’s called, in legal parlance, "contributory negligence." Consider, for example, this case of a driver who killed a pedestrian said to have been crossing outside the crosswalk. The driver was drunk and traveling at least 60 mph on a street whose limit was 30 mph. Statistically (and more-or-less legally), this enters the book as a "jaywalking" fatality, but it was predicated not merely on an illegal crossing but the active contribution of a driver whose reaction time was compromised—and who was traveling at a speed that made the pedestrian’s death much more likely.

The word jaywalking is also often used incorrectly. As this Savannah, Ga., blog noted, in discussing an "anti-jaywalking campaign" in that city, crossing anywhere but a crosswalk is illegal between two intersections marked with traffic signals but not when only one intersection has a light. "That means, for example, that if I want to cross Broughton Street midblock, between Abercorn Street (where there is a traffic light) and Lincoln Street (where there is not) I can do so as long as I ’yield the right of way to all vehicles upon the roadway unless I have already, and under safe conditions, entered the roadway’ " (according to Georgia law). Similarly, work by Meghan Fehlig Mitman and David R. Ragland has shown substantial confusion among drivers and pedestrians as to the actual right-of-way laws at places like marked, midblock crosswalks; crosswalk "stings" often net many drivers who report simply being unaware of pedestrians’ right to cross.

So what can be done? The answer is not jaywalking crackdowns. These tend to be hard to enforce, lower the public opinion of the police, reinforce the idea of car dominance on city streets, and, most importantly, do not provide an effective bang for the buck. Indeed, the Netherlands, which has essentially legalized jaywalking, has an enviable pedestrian safety record.

Instead, here’s what should be done. First, spend more money on making walking safer; despite the fact that pedestrians make up a large part of the traffic deaths in many states, funding is always disproportionately scant. Second, provide good places to walk. People instinctively strive for the conservation of energy, and failing to provide proper crossings in the presence of clear "desire lines" invites a jaywalking problem. Third, install pedestrian-friendly engineering. One of the simplest tools is the "leading pedestrian interval," which gives walkers a slight head start against turning traffic, thus making them more visible and allowing them to establish their presence in the intersection. A much more common problem than urban jaywalking crashes are left- and right-turn car-pedestrian crashes at intersections. Fourth, lower (and enforce) urban speeds. Cities like Barcelona and Amsterdam—pedestrian paradises both—are proposing limiting entire tracts of the city to 30 kph (that’s 18.6 mph, folks), and in places like the "Skvallertorget," or "Gossip Square," in Norrkoping, Sweden, the legal right of way is shared equally, and safely, among pedestrians and drivers, without clear markings, because car traffic has dropped to human speeds.* Fifth, stiffen penalties for cars that violate the rights of those legally crossing (which would provide ancillary benefits for those crossing in a more informal fashion). Pedestrian fatalities wouldn’t exist without cars, a stubborn fact that the law should reflect.

Finally, read newspapers very carefully. A number of studies have documented that media coverage of traffic crashes is selective, framed in certain predictable ways, and often misrepresents the true frequency or nature of actual risk. Jaywalking makes better copy for columnists than actually probing the complex nature of traffic safety.