by Jenni Bergal from Statelinean initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
For nearly a century, jaywalking has been illegal in most states and localities. But several recent reports have shown that police in some areas are disproportionately coercing people of color. And critics say citing people for crossing in the wrong place just gives them another reason to drive instead of walk.
“It doesn’t really improve safety. It’s part of a culture of blaming pedestrians,” said Mike McGinn, executive director of America Walks, a nonprofit pedestrian advocacy group. “And it’s being used to make pretext police stops that impinge on people’s ability to get around without being arrested, especially in black and brown communities.”
In the past two years, a few states have moved away from strict enforcement of jaywalking laws, which make it easier for pedestrians to cross the street outside a crosswalk or against a traffic light. without being cited by the police.
Virginia passed a law prohibiting officers from stopping a pedestrian solely for jaywalking. Nevada no longer considers it a misdemeanor. And in California, the state Assembly approved a bill in May that would allow people to cross outside an intersection when it is safe to do so. The measure is now in the state Senate.
“The actions taken by these states are small, but they are very important. There is a new attitude. We haven’t seen this happen in decades, and now we are,” said Peter Norton, associate professor of history in the University of Virginia’s Department of Engineering and Society, who is an expert in the history of jaywalking in America.
But at a time when pedestrian deaths are on the rise, opponents of decriminalization say police should be able to issue citations to discourage people from putting their lives at risk.
An estimated 7,485 pedestrians in the United States were struck and killed by motorists in 2021, the highest number in four decades, according to an analysis by the Governors Highway Safety Association, a nonprofit organization that represents the offices of state road safety. The group found that pedestrian deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic had increased considerably, while speeding and impaired driving and distraction have increased.
“When people walk on a roadway, an officer should be able to intervene because they are obstructing traffic and could injure themselves or cause an accident that could injure someone else,” said Dana Schrad, executive director of the Association of Virginia police chiefs. . “Our primary concern is public safety.”
Black, Hispanic, and low-income pedestrians are more likely to be killed while walking. Between 2016 and 2020, black pedestrians were struck and killed twice as many as non-Hispanic whites, according to a 2022 report by Smart Growth America, a nonprofit coalition of advocacy groups headquartered in Washington, D.C. The death rate in low-income neighborhoods across the country was nearly twice that of middle-income census tracts and more than three times that of high-income areas, according to the report. found.
“The lower the income of the census tract, the more likely a person is to be struck and killed while walking there,” the report said. “Poor walking infrastructure and a lack of safety devices put people who walk in low-income neighborhoods at higher risk, and many low-income households do not have access to a vehicle and must rely on the walk or public transport to get around.”
Although decriminalizing jaywalking can be controversial, in California the concept has received a lot of support from lawmakers.
Last year, both legislative houses passed a measure that would have repealed the state’s jaywalking laws. But Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed it, saying he had security concerns. Newsom cited state data that showed about 30% of traffic fatalities in the state over the past five years were pedestrian fatalities and 63% of those were the result of pedestrians” taking action against traffic controls or safety laws”.
This year, Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting, the original bill’s sponsor, introduced a version but worked with Newsom’s administration to make changes. Rather than repeal the Jaywalking Act, the measure passed by the Assembly this spring, dubbed freedom to walk law— would prohibit police from citing pedestrians for jaywalking if the road is clear and it is safe to cross.
“We’re making it much clearer when an officer can or cannot quote someone,” Ting said. “It really comes down to whether there is an immediate danger.
“We want more and more people to get out of their cars and walk,” he added. “Getting a citation is a big deterrent.”
A California jaywalking ticket can cost $197, and additional fees and penalties can be added if payment is late.
Groups supporting Ting’s legislation include the San Francisco Bay Area Civil Rights Lawyers Committee, Disability Rights California, and the cities of Alameda and Berkeley.
Opponents include the California State Sheriffs Association, the city of Thousand Oaks and the California branch of the American Society of Civil Engineers. The engineering group said that while it supported supporters’ arguments about uneven enforcement of jaywalking laws, the measure would make accidents worse and worsen road safety.
“We cannot agree that the solution is to create a new ‘reasonably careful person’ standard that allows pedestrians and others to decide if and when it is safe to cross streets, outside of legally established crossing zones” , Kenneth Rosenfield, director of the engineering group, wrote in June.
Ting said the streets are unsafe for pedestrians due to speed and distracted driving, not jaywalking. He called the decriminalization of jaywalking a matter of racial justice.
“In San Francisco the most jaywalking must be downtown, but I’ve never heard of anyone getting a jaywalking ticket. We all wear suits,” he said. “The quotes appear to have nothing to do with pedestrian safety and everything to do with harassment.”
Ting points to an analysis of state data by the California Bicycle Coalition, which found that from 2018 to 2020, police in some California cities were nearly four and a half times more likely stop black pedestrians for jaywalking than white people.
In New York, an analysis of 2019 data by StreetsBlog found that blacks and Hispanics got about 90% of tickets to “illegal or dangerous” crossing, even though they were only 55% of the city’s population.
And a 2017 survey by ProPublica and the Florida Times-Union found that over a five-year period, blacks in Jacksonville were almost three times more likely as white people to be ticketed for a pedestrian violation.
Last year, Democratic Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak signed into law a measure that the legislature passed unanimously. decriminalizes jaywalking. Instead of being a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000, the new law makes it subject to a civil penalty of no more than $100.
The same month the Nevada measure was signed into law, the Kansas City, Missouri City Council voted unanimously eliminate tickets and penalties for jaywalking.
Virginia’s new law, effective March 2021, prohibits officers from stopping and citing pedestrians only for jaywalking. Jaywalking remains technically illegal in the state, but is now considered a secondary offense, which means an officer would have to stop the pedestrian first for another reason.
Schrad, of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said his group opposed the change because it made the jaywalking law unenforceable.
“For us, it’s like a no-go,” she said. “He says law enforcement can’t cite someone for violating the jaywalking law unless there’s another reason to arrest him, like if he’s drunk in public or if he disturbs the peace. This means that they cannot intervene or save that person in a potentially dangerous situation.
But the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research group funded by car insurance companies, said the answer is not to go after pedestrians; it is to change the design of the streets.
“You are unlikely to be able to work your way out of this,” Russ Rader, a spokesman for the group, said in an email. “The solution for safety is to look at how to provide more and safer crossings for people in areas where jaywalking happens more frequently, provide better lighting as many fatal accidents happen in the dark and reduce vehicle speeds to make collisions more avoidable or at least less severe.
McGinn of America Walks also said better pedestrian infrastructure is needed, especially in low-income areas.
“We focus on the bad stuff,” McGinn said. “The real issue is that we need to design our streets so that cars move slowly and carefully and we prioritize the safety of people walking through their neighborhoods and business districts.”
Author Jenni Bergal is a seasoned journalist who covers transportation, infrastructure and cybersecurity for Stateline. She was a reporter at Kaiser Health News, the Center for Public Integrity and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and oversaw the senior editorial staff of “Weekend Edition” at NPR. Bergal has spent much of his career doing investigative reporting. She has won numerous national awards, including the Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism, the National Press Club Consumer Journalism Award and the Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Reporting and is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist. She is co-author of the book, City Adrift: New Orleans before and after Katrina.
This story was originally published in Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.