The very word jaywalk is an interesting—and not historically neutral—one. Originally an insult against bumptious "jays" from the country who ineptly gamboled on city sidewalks, it was taken up by a coalition of pro-automobile interests in the 1920s, notes historian Peter D. Norton in his book Fighting Traffic. "Before the American city could be physically reconstructed to accommodate automobiles, its streets had to be socially reconstructed as places where cars belong," he writes. "Until then, streets were regarded as public spaces, where practices that endangered or obstructed others (including pedestrians) were disreputable. Motorists' claim to street space was therefore fragile, subject to restrictions that threatened to negate the advantages of car ownership." And so, where newspapers like the New York Times once condemned the "slaughter of pedestrians" by cars and defended the right to midblock crossings—and where cities like Cincinnati weighed imposing speed "governors" for cars—after a few decades, the focus of attention had shifted from marauding motorists onto the reckless "jaywalker."
That pattern continues, and today the word jaywalking is often used as a sort of blanket justification for the dominating presence of cars on city streets. It also reflects a social bias against those people not in cars. (Note this comment in a Federal Highway Administration report: "Still, almost no one can avoid occasional pedestrian status," as if they were discussing exposure to a venereal disease.) It's also used to shift blame entirely to the pedestrian when drivers may have had what's called, in legal parlance, "contributory negligence." Consider, for example, this case of a driver who killed a pedestrian said to have been crossing outside the crosswalk. The driver was drunk and traveling at least 60 mph on a street whose limit was 30 mph. Statistically (and more-or-less legally), this enters the book as a "jaywalking" fatality, but it was predicated not merely on an illegal crossing but the active contribution of a driver whose reaction time was compromised—and who was traveling at a speed that made the pedestrian's death much more likely.
The word jaywalking is also often used incorrectly. As this Savannah, Ga., blog noted, in discussing an "anti-jaywalking campaign" in that city, crossing anywhere but a crosswalk is illegal between two intersections marked with traffic signals but not when only one intersection has a light. "That means, for example, that if I want to cross Broughton Street midblock, between Abercorn Street (where there is a traffic light) and Lincoln Street (where there is not) I can do so as long as I 'yield the right of way to all vehicles upon the roadway unless I have already, and under safe conditions, entered the roadway' " (according to Georgia law). Similarly, work by Meghan Fehlig Mitman and David R. Ragland has shown substantial confusion among drivers and pedestrians as to the actual right-of-way laws at places like marked, midblock crosswalks; crosswalk "stings" often net many drivers who report simply being unaware of pedestrians' right to cross.
So what can be done? The answer is not jaywalking crackdowns. These tend to be hard to enforce, lower the public opinion of the police, reinforce the idea of car dominance on city streets, and, most importantly, do not provide an effective bang for the buck. Indeed, the Netherlands, which has essentially legalized jaywalking, has an enviable pedestrian safety record.
Instead, here's what should be done. First, spend more money on making walking safer; despite the fact that pedestrians make up a large part of the traffic deaths in many states, funding is always disproportionately scant. Second, provide good places to walk. People instinctively strive for the conservation of energy, and failing to provide proper crossings in the presence of clear "desire lines" invites a jaywalking problem. Third, install pedestrian-friendly engineering. One of the simplest tools is the "leading pedestrian interval," which gives walkers a slight head start against turning traffic, thus making them more visible and allowing them to establish their presence in the intersection. A much more common problem than urban jaywalking crashes are left- and right-turn car-pedestrian crashes at intersections. Fourth, lower (and enforce) urban speeds. Cities like Barcelona and Amsterdam—pedestrian paradises both—are proposing limiting entire tracts of the city to 30 kph (that's 18.6 mph, folks), and in places like the "Skvallertorget," or "Gossip Square," in Norrkoping, Sweden, the legal right of way is shared equally, and safely, among pedestrians and drivers, without clear markings, because car traffic has dropped to human speeds. * Fifth, stiffen penalties for cars that violate the rights of those legally crossing (which would provide ancillary benefits for those crossing in a more informal fashion). Pedestrian fatalities wouldn't exist without cars, a stubborn fact that the law should reflect.
Finally, read newspapers very carefully. A number of studies have documented that media coverage of traffic crashes is selective, framed in certain predictable ways, and often misrepresents the true frequency or nature of actual risk. Jaywalking makes better copy for columnists than actually probing the complex nature of traffic safety.
Correction, Nov. 5, 2009: This piece originally misspelled the name of the town of Norrkoping. (Return to the corrected sentence.)