You are in a hurry and do not wish to walk to the crosswalk in order to cross the street. In any case, who cares? The required store is located directly across the street, not near the intersection. Therefore, you may cross when traffic is clear.
You have just jaywalked, which is crossing the street outside of an intersection or crosswalk. And it is likely illegal. However, why?
It primarily relates to pedestrian safety in general. It makes sense, given that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports 6,205 pedestrian fatalities in 2019.
In addition, while pedestrians account for only 3% of those involved in traffic accidents, they account for 14% of traffic fatalities. Despite the fact that seventy percent of pedestrian fatalities occur at locations other than intersections, many occur at intersections and crosswalks where pedestrian crossings are concentrated.
Therefore, jaywalking is prohibited for safety reasons. Got it. However, the history of jaywalking and its enforcement are more complicated than one might expect.
History of the Jaywalking
According to Merriam-Webster, “jaywalking” is derived from the older, less common term “jay-driving.” The term “jay-driving” was applied to horse-drawn carriage drivers who obstinately drove on the wrong side of the road.
The Junction City, Kansas, Junction City Union published one of the earliest known uses of jay-driving in print in June 1905; the Kansas City Star used the term jaywalking in October of the same year. In both instances, the term “jay” referred to an inexperienced person, such as a hick or a rube, and carried severe derogatory connotations.
However, the earliest uses of jaywalking referred to improper sidewalk etiquette, not illegally crossing the street, and Merriam-Webster does not know why the term’s meaning changed.
One might assume that when the automobile became commonplace, it also became a status symbol, and that class warfare was fought between those who could afford to drive and those who had to walk. However, the opposite is true. According to an essay in Salon, pedestrians who resented being displaced to the sidewalks outnumbered drivers, who were therefore the outsiders. This period lasted well into the 1920s, when the automobile industry lobbied to make cities more car-friendly — and jaywalking became first a faux pas, then a crime. In 1911, crosswalks were added to streets, and by the 1930s, laws against jaywalking were widespread.
Jaywalking as a Crime
Currently, if you are struck while jaywalking, your rights as a pedestrian vary by state. Most states view the situation differently based on whether the pedestrian was in a “controlled” crossing, with a crosswalk, or a “uncontrolled” crossing, with no crosswalk or traffic signals.
Traffic signals do not always have the same meaning in each state, and some states have “distracted walking” laws that allow law enforcement to issue citations for offenses such as texting while crossing an intersection. Then there are states such as Michigan that do not have statewide crosswalk regulations, leaving cities and towns to write and communicate their own regulations.
How do you keep up with the laws when you’re behind the wheel? Consider the old mantra you may have learned in driver’s ed: “The right of way is something you give, not something you take.” Drivers are required to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians at crosswalks and intersections with stop signs or traffic signals, although laws vary from state to state. However, pedestrians are expected to yield the right-of-way to drivers whenever there is no designated crossing location.
In 19 states, however, drivers are required to yield to pedestrians at any point on the roadway. Even more states require drivers to stop and yield to pedestrians within a certain distance of the vehicle. Yet confused?
In an effort to simplify matters for law enforcement, the NHTSA’s “Pedestrian Safety Enforcement Operations: A How-To Guide” instructs officers to “cite both drivers and pedestrians, but prioritize drivers because they are the less vulnerable population.” In other words, pedestrians and drivers frequently share responsibility for collisions, but drivers should keep in mind that they are much less likely to sustain injuries.
Do Pedestrians Always Have the Right of Way?
However, you have been told repeatedly that pedestrians always have the right of way, even when jaywalking. Is this not the case? Surprisingly, there are multiple solutions to this question. First, it again depends on local laws. Second, if you hit a pedestrian while driving and they are injured, does it really matter who was “right”? Most likely not.
The NHTSA’s guidelines for pedestrian safety emphasize that pedestrians are still responsible for their own safety; however, motorists must also be vigilant for pedestrians at all times and in all places.
What about those who jaywalk? Are they likely to be punished for this behavior? In general, the answer is probably no (for more information, see Now That’s Sad).
The NHTSA’s guide to law enforcement best practices states that “enforcement of pedestrian safety laws has typically been minimal”; however, jaywalking laws are only a small portion of this category, and NHTSA does not provide specifics about jaywalking laws. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration declined to comment on jaywalking enforcement, stating that it is a matter for local law enforcement agencies.
Yes, jaywalking is illegal in the majority of jurisdictions. It is the responsibility of both drivers and pedestrians to be aware of local laws, but even so, safety and common sense should take precedence.
Consequently, if you, as a driver, strike a jaywalker or if you, as a pedestrian, are struck by a car while jaywalking, the legal consequences will vary depending on your location. As the negligent driver or pedestrian victim, regardless of the legal ramifications, a potentially life-altering incident occurred because one or both of you were not paying sufficient attention.