They’ve rarely protected pedestrians, and their enforcement is racially biased. Two street safety experts say there are better ways to curb traffic violence. Angie Schmitt and Charles T. Brown October 16, 2020
On Sept. 23, Kurt Andreas Reinhold, a 42-year-old Black man, was trying to cross a street in San Clemente, California, when two officers from a special “homeless outreach unit” stopped him. An altercation ensued; minutes later, Reinhold, a father of two and down-on-his-luck former youth soccer coach, was shot and killed. In a cellphone video of the confrontation, Reinhold can be heard demanding, “Where did I jaywalk?”
This is a particularly troubling example of a pattern we see all too often. Black and Brown people, especially men, are routinely targeted by police for jaywalking or simply existing in public space. Often these stops result in an escalating series of fines and fees. In other cases — as in San Clemente, as well as in Sacramento, Seattle and New York City — they can end in violence.
Especially at a time when there is intense focus on police brutality and racism, Reinhold’s death should prompt us to pause and consider who is truly served by jaywalking laws. Their effectiveness as safety measures appears to be limited: Despite heavy handed and selective jaywalking enforcement, pedestrian deaths in the U.S. have increased rapidly in the last decade. As two of the top experts on pedestrian safety in the country, we think it is time for cities to consider decriminalizing jaywalking or eliminating the infraction altogether.
Here’s why.More fromThe Pandemic Kick-Started an Urban Motorcycle Boom. Are Cities Ready?How the Pandemic Changed the Urban SoundscapeIn a Land of Cul-de-Sacs, the Street Grid Stages a ComebackEntrepreneurship Is the Vaccine for Urban Economies
1. Jaywalking is a made-up thing by auto companies to deflect blame when drivers hit pedestrians.
Although jaywalking is foundational to the way we think about streets and access today, it is a relatively young concept. As University of Virginia historian Peter Norton explains in his book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, the notion of “jaywalking” — “jay” being an early 20th century term for someone stupid or unsophisticated — was introduced by a group of auto industry-aligned groups in the 1930s. Prior to the emergence of cars in cities, no such concept existed; pedestrians had free rein in public right-of-ways. But as city streets became sites of increasing carnage in the early days of America’s auto era — about 200,000 Americans (many of them children) were killed by cars in the 1920s — automakers sought regulations that would shift blame away from drivers.
2. The concept of jaywalking encourages drivers to be aggressive toward pedestrians, and for third parties to ignore or excuse pedestrian deaths.
Just as their early proponents hoped, jaywalking laws succeeded in creating a perverse “moral basis” for pedestrian deaths in the minds of the public. We see this reflected today in media reports of pedestrian deaths where the convention is to note the victim “wasn’t in the crosswalk.” This moral framing is so powerful pedestrians who are killed are often slandered as “lazy” or “stupid” by officials charged with keeping them safe.
But this conception is cruel and prevents us from addressing the core of the problem. People don’t deserve to die for the minor offense of jaywalking.
3. Our streets are not designed to make walking safe or convenient.
The core problem lies with street design, not human behavior. Tellingly, pedestrian deaths in cities around the country are concentrated on certain types of roads: wide, fast arterials. For example, in Rockford, Illinois, almost one in four traffic deaths is on a single road: State Street. A similar proportion of pedestrian fatalities Philadelphia take place on Roosevelt Boulevard. These dangerous roads, which lack adequate crossings, lighting and sidewalks, are typically concentrated in Black and Brown neighborhoods.
4. Pedestrians are almost as likely to be struck and killed at an intersection as mid-block.
Support for jaywalking laws rests on the idea that they make us safer. But the data on crossing location and safety is not as compelling as the law suggests.
Federally sponsored research in the 1990s looked closely at the types of situations in which “serious pedestrian crashes” occurred. It found that pedestrians are struckin crosswalks almost as often (25% of the time) as they are struck midblock (26%). In the additional almost 50% of crashes, pedestrians are struck outside of typical pedestrian crossing scenarios — for example, on sidewalks, or walking along the side of the road or highway attending to disabled cars.
5. When pedestrians jaywalk, they are often behaving rationally.
Jaywalking laws are not flexible enough to account for the range of scenarios pedestrians encounter, including prolonged signal timings and delays that give priority to automobiles. In some cases, jaywalking is driven by the fear of crime, particularly in low-income communities. In others, there simply aren’t enough crosswalks, or crosswalks are at the wrong location.
Jaywalking may be the most rational choice given a host of bad options. For example, an investigation into the nation-leading pedestrian deaths in Arizona by the Arizona Republic last year found only about a third of the pedestrians killed in Phoenix were near (within 500 feet of) a crosswalk. The reporters concluded there was a need for more crosswalks, not a crackdown on jaywalkers.
There is strong scientific support for that kind of approach. A 2014 study conducted by the Federal Highway Administration was able to use environmental factors — like the presence of a right-turn lane or the distance between crosswalks — to predict with 90% accuracy whether or not a pedestrian would cross mid-block.
Criminalizing a rational, predictable response to poor infrastructure is unjust.
6. Jaywalking laws are not enforced fairly.
Because police have broad discretion over their response to this petty offense, jaywalking lends itself to biased enforcement.
A 2017 investigation by ProPublica and the Florida Times-Union found that Black people in Jacksonville, Florida, for example, are three times as likely to be stopped and cited for jaywalking as white people. Those living in the poorest neighborhoods were six times as likely. Black men and boys were the most frequent targets.
The same pattern has been observed just about everywhere it’s been analyzed. An investigation by the Sacramento Bee found that Black residents received 50% of the city’s jaywalking tickets in 2017, despite making up just 15% of the population. Similar patterns have been uncovered in Seattle and New York.
7. Jaywalking stops are frequently explosive.
People stopped for jaywalking are often confused about why they are being stopped. For example, an 84-year-old Asian man was bloodied by police in New York City in 2014. The man, Kang Wong, did not speak English and witnesses told the New York Post he “didn’t appear to understand their orders to stop.” In Seattle, in 2010, a white police officer was caught on tape punching a Black 17-year-old girl when she protested a jaywalking stop.
Often police interpret confusion as lack of cooperation and add on charges — like resisting arrest — or resort to use of force when people complain about being stopped on such a minor offense. But pedestrians who feel unfairly targeted have a point: These laws are enforced arbitrarily, with racially discriminatory effects to questionable safety benefit.
8. The focus on jaywalking reflects the lower political status of those who walk — not the societal harm of the activity.
Pedestrians who are hurt and killed in the U.S. are disproportionately marginalized: Black, Brown, elderly, disabled, poor. Perhaps this is the reason we seize on the jaywalking as the root cause of the problem, rather than offenses by drivers or road designs that create unsafe environments.
9. The safest countries globally allow jaywalking.
The U.K. has about half as many pedestrian deaths per capita as the U.S. (and a much higher walking rate). But the U.K. allows pedestrians legally to cross where they please. Meanwhile, in Norway, the world leader in eliminating traffic deaths, pedestrians are encouraged to cross at certain locations, but there is no rule against jaywalking, and it is certainly not a crime that police go around assaulting people for violating. If the U.S. could match Norway’s traffic safety record, about 30,000 lives a year would be saved, according to the 2018 global status report on road safety by the World Health Organization.
Eliminating jaywalking laws may sound radical, but it’s been discussed before in cities such as Seattle. Other places, like Berkeley, California, are experimenting with new models for traffic enforcement that deemphasize police in favor of crash investigators who are trained to help promote infrastructure changes that improve safety. New York Attorney General Letitia James has advocated for removing police from traffic stops, and a new survey shows a majority of New Yorkers support the idea.
Wider reforms and changes to traffic safety enforcement are needed, from increasing diversity within law enforcement to enhanced data tracking, police training, inclusivity and investment in new social and criminal justice programs. Such efforts must be implemented with a vigilant eye towards reversing existing inequities: Early results from so-called “unbiased” enforcement efforts, such as intelligence-led enforcement, used by cities like Oakland, California, show disparities in traffic stops remain. The time is now, not later, to revisit or eliminate laws like jaywalking that are primarily used as a pretext to stop Black and Brown people — and rarely protected any pedestrians in the first place.
Angie Schmitt is a writer and planning consultant and author of Right of Way: Race, Class and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America, which was published in August by Island Press. Portions of this article were adapted from her book.
Charles T. Brown is a senior researcher and adjunct professor at Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University.Have a confidential tip for our reporters?
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