You want to cross the street quickly, but you don't have time to walk all the way to the crosswalk. Who really cares, right? You can find the store you need immediately across the street, far from the crossing. So when there is no traffic, you go to cross. What you just did was jaywalk across the street rather than using a crosswalk or an intersection. Probably illegal as well. Yet why? Generally speaking, it has to do with pedestrian safety. And that makes sense given that 6,205 pedestrian fatalities were recorded in 2019, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Additionally, although they make up only 3% of individuals engaged in traffic accidents, pedestrians are responsible for 14% of the fatalities. Despite the fact that crosswalks and intersections have a high concentration of pedestrian crossings, 70 percent of pedestrian fatalities occur there. Jaywalking is therefore forbidden for safety reasons. Got it. However, the history of jaywalking and how it is enforced are more nuanced than you may think.
How did jaywalking begin and when did it become a crime..
Jay-driving, which Merriam-Webster claims is the origin of the phrase "jaywalking," was a term used to characterize drivers of horse-drawn carriages who insisted on driving on the wrong side of the road. The Kansas City Star first used the term "jaywalking" in October of the same year, making it one of the oldest use of the term "jay-driving" in literature. In all instances, the term "jay" connoted someone who lacked expertise in their respective fields, such as a hick or a rube, and had gravely negative connotations. However, the phrase "jaywalking" was first used to refer to bad sidewalk behavior rather than forcibly crossing the street, and according to Merriam-Webster, it is unclear why the definition of the term changed.
One may imagine that as cars became more prevalent, they also became status symbols and that class conflicts were related to who could buy a car and who had to rely on public transportation. But the reality is much different. According to a Salon column, pedestrians who were irritated over being forced to use the sidewalks outnumbered drivers, making them the outsiders. This period lasted well into the 1920s, during which time the automotive business fought to make towns more car-friendly and to criminalize jaywalking. In 1911, crosswalks were put to the streets, and by the 1930s, legislation prohibiting jaywalking had become commonplace.
These days, if you're hit while jaywalking, your state may have different laws governing your rights as a pedestrian. Depending on whether the pedestrian was in a "controlled" crossing with a crosswalk or a "uncontrolled" crossing without any markings or signals, most states have differing perspectives on the case. Traffic signals in different jurisdictions don't necessarily imply the same thing, and some states have local "distracted walking" laws that enable law enforcement to issue tickets for infractions like texting while crossing an intersection, which further complicates matters. Then there are states without statewide crosswalk legislation, such as Michigan, which leaves it up to individual cities and municipalities to create and publicize their own rules.
How then do you adhere to all the laws when operating a vehicle? Though laws for drivers, again, vary from state to state, in general, drivers must yield the right of way to pedestrians in crosswalks and at intersections with stop signs or traffic signals. Now, consider that old adage you may have learned way back in drivers' education: "The right of way is something you give, not take." Where there isn't a designated crossing point for pedestrians, however, pedestrians are also obliged to give way to automobiles. Drivers must still yield to pedestrians wherever they are on the road in 19 states. Even more states have laws requiring vehicles to slow down and yield to pedestrians when they are within a certain distance of the vehicle. Not yet clear?
The NHTSA's "Pedestrian Safety Enforcement Operations: A How-To Guide" advises officers to "cite both drivers and pedestrians, but focus on drivers, as they are the less vulnerable population." In other words, while pedestrians and drivers frequently share fault for collisions, drivers should keep in mind that they are much less likely to suffer serious injury.
Who has the right of way?
However, you've heard repeatedly that even when a pedestrian is jaywalking, they always have the right of way. Isn't that the case? Surprise, there are a few options for this response. First, it is subject to local regulations once more. Second, does it really matter who was "correct" if you hit a person while driving and they suffer injuries? Most likely not. The NHTSA's pedestrian safety recommendations highlight that drivers must always be alert for pedestrians, everywhere they go and at all times. However, pedestrians must still be responsible for their own safety. What about the jaywalkers, though? Are they likely to face consequences for their actions? The answer is probably no in general.
Even though jaywalking regulations are only a small portion of this larger category, and NHTSA doesn't expressly address jaywalking laws, the law enforcement best practices guide from NHTSA states that "enforcement of pedestrian safety statutes has historically been low." When we contacted the NHTSA, they declined to comment, saying that local law enforcement should handle the issue of jaywalking enforcement. In short, yes, most jurisdictions do have laws against jaywalking. However, it is the responsibility of both drivers and pedestrians to be aware of local rules, and even then, safety should come first.
So, if you as a motorist hit someone who is jaywalking, or if you as a pedestrian are hit by a car while jaywalking, the legal consequences will vary depending on where you are. Aside from the legal issues, as the offending motorist or pedestrian victim, the bottom line is that a potentially life-altering incident occurred because one or both of you were simply not paying enough attention.