If crosswalks are located hundreds of feet from where people need them, or if drivers are going too fast to stop for people in crosswalks, you might think safety improvements are needed. But as State House News Service reports, a Worcester state senator is trying to raise the fine for crossing the street outside of painted crosswalks:
Astounded that the fine for jaywalking is $1 and convinced that cutting down on the behavior would increase pedestrian safety, Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler on Wednesday asked lawmakers to increase penalties for errant street-crossing. […]
The Worcester Democrat said she was motivated to act after pedestrian deaths in Main South in Worcester and was surprised to see how little the fine is for crossing the street illegally.
One small problem: Other than a young boy who darted between cars (scofflaw!) and was hit, the people killed in Worcester were obeying the law:
Even [if you obey the law], there is no guarantee your life is safe. And what about instances when there is no crosswalk where there should have been? That appears to have been the case in the death of Janet Graham, the 72-year-old woman who was hit by a car Monday, Nov. 3 on Lincoln Street. That road had been under reconstruction, and according to people in the area the crosswalk that was typically in place had not yet been repainted. There have been other instances where pedestrians have been struck while clearly within a marked crosswalk.
Much of the misunderstanding is fueled by the fact that the people in power mostly drive, while people who walk for transportation often do so because they can’t afford a car – exactly the type of people politicians don’t listen to.
Police often talk about pedestrian crashes with detached confusion, as if they’d suddenly been asked to do play-by-play for Olympic water polo.
The danger for people walking becomes even more acute in the winter, when most communities either don’t require the shoveling of sidewalks & crossings or don’t enforce their laws.
As Tom Vanderbilt writes for Slate, targeting “jaywalking” doesn’t make anyone safer:
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.
A much better plan: Mayor Walsh’s Vision Zero for Boston, which targets ways to make streets safer for everyone without demonizing people walking.