Jaywalking - the Walker's Crime

Don't Walk Signal
Don't Walk Signal. © Thinkstock / Stockbyte / Getty

Definition of Jaywalking: Jaywalking is crossing a street either between intersections or crossing at an intersection against the signal of the pedestrian crossing light. In some jurisdictions, this may be illegal. It may be subject to an infraction or be a misdemeanor requiring a court appearance.

If a pedestrian is hit by a car or other vehicle while jaywalking, the walker may be cited for contributory negligence.

In the United States, most states base their laws on the Uniform Vehicle Code, which requires vehicles to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk, but outside of a crosswalk the pedestrian must yield to vehicles. States, cities and towns may have their own jaywalking ordinances.
More: Walking Safety Rules

It May Be Illegal, But is Jaywalking Really a Wrong Move?

Tom Vanderbilt defends jaywalking in a 2009 article in Slate. He points out that statistics about pedestrian deaths related to jaywalking are inaccurate in many ways. The good news is that the 40% of pedestrian deaths are people with measurable blood alcohol levels, usually walking after dark. While we may be dismayed by distracted walkers who are jaywalking, texting or blabbing on cell phones, or oblivious with their iPods, it's really the booze that is associated with the death rate.

New York City ranked as one of the safest cities for walkers the "Dangerous by Design" reports on pedestrian safety.

But the Freakonomics podcast The Perfect Crime says that if you want to get away with murder, run down a pedestrian in NYC. A startling 25% of the trauma cases at Bellevue Hospital in NYC are pedestrians struck by vehicles, and 67% of them say they were in the crosswalk, crossing with the light -- not jaywalkers.

Unlike many other jurisdictions, in NYC you must be driving drunk when you hit a pedestrian to be charged with anything beyond a traffic ticket. In five years of 1300 fatal crashes, only 66 drivers were arrested. With such poor enforcement, crosswalks don't sound much safer than jaywalking.
More: 10 Most Dangerous Cities for Walkers

Jaywalking Safety

I try to always be a law-abiding citizen but I must admit that I jaywalk regularly.

  • I'm an adult.
  • I look both ways and cross when there are no cars in sight. I trust my own eyes more than a driver determined to make a turn across the crosswalk I am occupying.
  • I never jaywalk if there are any children in sight. If I see any kids, I use the crosswalk with the signal so I am being a good role model.

I live in a suburb often cross a street that where I've had many near-misses when I was crossing legally in the crosswalk with the Walk signal. Cars turning left across my crosswalk on the green light and cars legally turning right after stopping for the red light have both put me in danger of my life.

They just aren't expecting pedestrians, and they believe they are turning legally.

At a crosswalk, I have to eyeball traffic from four directions to ensure they see me and know I'm crossing. I often give them a wave. Sometimes the drivers flash a middle finger back as THEY have a green light and believe that trumps my white Walk light.

I have also had drivers run a red light at full speed at an intersection. If I had been expecting them to stop, I could have been dead wrong.

My choice to cross down the street after checking traffic from two directions feels safer. The road is narrower than it is at the intersection, so the time spent crossing is less. My risk of a citation is very low because I only do this when no cars are sight -- which would include any police patrols.

More: 10 Ways Walking Can Land You in Jail

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