How We Started Talking About Jaywalkers, and Let Jaydrivers Fly Free

By: Bridget Clerkin September 19, 2018
While today's laws put jaywalkers on notice, "jaydriving" used to be the top danger on the roads.
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March 2018 marked a morbid milestone in the continuing history of automobiles: it was the first time a pedestrian lost their life to a self-driving car.

Arizona resident Elaine Herzberg was crossing the street—at night and not in a crosswalk—when she was struck and killed by an autonomous vehicle. While a number of explanations have been floated to figure out exactly what went wrong, at least one revolved around the idea that the cars are specifically “trained” to recognize—and proceed with caution around—crosswalks and other pedestrian areas.

The cause of death may be novel, but the idea that indiscriminately crossing a street could be deadly is far from new. Fear of such tragedies has been a pillar of jaywalking enforcement and has kept walkers conscribed to their painted white lanes despite the fact that many states actually grant pedestrians the legal right-of-way.

Yet it hasn’t always been a car’s world that walkers happen to live in.

When automobiles were still new, it was the drivers who were first prescribed the term “jay,” an old-time insult insinuating gullibility, stupidity, and an abject lack of worldliness.

It took a tremendous effort by the auto industry to shift the paradigm, but after more than 100 years of admonishing jaywalkers for how they move, is it time to shift the burden of responsibility back to motorists?

Walk This Way

Kansas City is largely considered the birthplace of jaywalking—at least in terms of coining the term. One of its first known instances of use was in the Kansas City Star in 1905.

But the city is also an early adapter of the phrase “jaydriving,” which made one of its first official appearances earlier that year in an article found in the Junction City Union.

The piece detailed the perilous conduct of confused motorists, who were accused of not driving in any sort of predictable pattern and generally leaving any horse, buggy, or person in their way at the mercy of their machines. (The Star’s article had been contrasting such manners against those of more well-behaved pedestrians, imploring readers to imagine a world where “jaywalkers” would follow suit behind jaydrivers.)

Positing jaydrivers as the jerks of the road was an idea that persisted even into the 1940s; but on early streets, freed nearly entirely from traffic laws, the issue was far more than a nuisance.

Drivers were first prescribed the term “jay,” an old-time insult insinuating gullibility, stupidity, and an abject lack of worldliness.

With society unaccustomed to the idea of cars, the streets were free game for pedestrians, who crossed where and whenever they pleased, only needing to worry about dodging relatively slow horse-drawn carriages.

Introducing automobiles to the mix saw an almost instant jump in roadway fatalities. Death rates more than doubled in 6 years, climbing from just over 6,700 in 1917 to 14,411 by 1923.

A 1924 report compiled by the Census Bureau made specific note of the “particularly distressing” trend of young children being killed by the vehicles, with 26% of 1923’s roadway victims under the age of 15.

Still, by 1912, it was jaywalking, not jaydriving, that was made a crime, with Kansas City, Missouri once again leading the charge, this time in codifying the term.

And it didn’t take long for the trend to catch on.

Foot Soldiers

By 1923, the pedestrian populace was outraged.

Automobiles, at that point, were essentially a plaything of the rich, thought of as unnecessary extravagances—and dangerous ones to boot.

The growing number of deaths at their hands, especially those of children, had become a rallying cry, and a call for the cars to be fastened with “governors”—devices that would not allow a vehicle to travel faster than 25 MPH—was gaining momentum.

More than 42,000 Cincinnati residents that year signed on to put the governor requirement up for a ballot initiative. But the vote was doomed to fail.

Sensing a very real threat to its viability, a panicked auto industry lit up its fledgling network of dealers and enthusiasts, pouring money into campaigns to paint their machines as the way of the future, and the governor idea as grievously limiting.

The industry followed up with the concept that it was pedestrians, rather than automobiles, whose behaviors should be curbed, holding the Kansas City law up as an example of responsible road management.

Once the idea started to take hold, further campaigns were launched to cement the concept of the new world order, with jaywalking depicted as, at turns, idiotic, unsafe, and even more dangerous than staring down the barrel of a gun.

In its infancy, the American Automobile Association (AAA) sponsored safety programs in schools, warning children against the perils of jaywalking. The Boy Scouts of America likewise had their members trained in roadway safety, and they passed out cards to pedestrians to warn of a car’s right of way.

As those young generations grew up, it became all but an established fact that public roads were meant for automobiles—and that pedestrians had to wait their turn.

Two Steps Forward…

Yet today, some have started to question the concept, saying jaywalking can be just as dangerous as crossing inside of crosswalks.

Indeed, some studies seem to bolster that view—or at least serve to muddy the numerical waters—including one report by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) of the National Academies stating that the danger of getting hit either within or outside of a crosswalk was roughly the same.

And several analyses, including a test by the TRB performed in 1972, showed that the risk of being hit by a car was actually higher within the confines of a crosswalk.

Most recently, the issue was tackled by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which reported that pedestrian deaths in 2016 had risen to levels unseen for a quarter century, thanks in part to the number of people who were struck while crossing the street at night and outside of a crosswalk.

A Transportation Research Board report found the danger of getting hit either within or outside of a crosswalk was roughly the same.

Still, saddling motorists rather than walkers with extra precautions in light of the trend has already proven effective at curbing fatalities.

Even as the pedestrian death toll rose nationwide, New York City hit a record low for the statistic last year. Among the policies credited for the turnaround are the reduction of speed limits to 25 MPH in some areas of the city, as well as increased crackdowns on moving violations and the overhauled design of several intersections, intended to slow down turning cars.

And in general, more cities around the globe seem to be putting pedestrians first, reining in the areas where vehicles can roam the streets freely.

As the world continues driving toward a future of autonomous cars, there’s been even more movement to embrace foot-friendly transportation, with parks envisioned to replace parking lots and plans to increase the use of pedestrian promenades.

With vehicles relegated to utilitarian roles, pedestrians may be able to flock back to the streets and fly as free as a jay.

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