In Defense of Jaywalking
Banning the practice won't make pedestrians safer.
Looking at any number of big-city dailies over the last few weeks, one might reasonably surmise that we are in the middle of a new public-health epidemic with an old name: jaywalking.
A columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, commenting on a report on the city's most dangerous intersections, wrote: "[I]s it any surprise that three of the top four are near Sixth and Market streets, the home of the lackadaisical jaywalker? Seriously, how often have you seen someone there walk out into traffic against the light, confidently assuming that the car will stop?" In Boston, meanwhile, the Globe sounded exasperated about how "throngs of iPod-wearing, cellphone-texting walkers blew through the red 'Don't walk' signs, barely acknowledging the flustered drivers who slammed on the brakes and banged on their dashboards in futility." In New York, the Post bemoaned "jaywalking's steep toll," calling it a "foolish practice" that "needs to stop."
These accounts—which are typically combined with grim statistics on pedestrian deaths and injuries, but no deeper analysis—could well leave casual readers with the impression that jaywalking is the single greatest risk to the urban pedestrian, that pedestrians wantonly solicit injuries and death with their depraved behavior, and that properly corralling pedestrians could solve all our traffic safety problems.
All of which is wrong. Certainly, there are egregious jaywalkers who defy logic and physics in their wayward perambulations. (Many of these are drunk people; as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration notes, "about 25 percent of fatally injured pedestrians have a BAC greater than .20"). And, conversely, there are also careful jaywalkers, like myself, who frankly find the notion of waiting for a signal when no cars are in sight to be faintly ridiculous and anti-urban.
But the facts simply do not support the idea that jaywalking is the greatest danger pedestrians face, and that drivers should be let off the hook. In San Francisco, for example, a report by the city's Municipal Transportation Agency looking at collisions in 2007 found that cases of drivers violating the pedestrian's right of way were more common than pedestrians violating that of drivers. In New York City the Post, quoting numbers from the DoT, said 50 jaywalkers were killed annually; this is a high number to be sure, but just one-fourth the total pedestrian death toll.
And numbers are only the half of it, because they rarely do justice to the complexity of the pedestrian safety issue—often they do it an injustice. It's not uncommon to find statements such as this, from a law enforcement magazine: "A study out of Florida revealed that pedestrians are at fault 80 percent of the time." Such lines suggest the answer is simple: Let's crack down on dangerous walkers! But the truth is more complicated, and fault is a word rarely used by traffic safety professionals. Florida is, first of all, a generally terrible place to be a pedestrian: One survey of pedestrian danger found that half of the nation's 10 most dangerous places for pedestrians were in the Sunshine State. Are the people of Florida overwhelmingly predisposed to careless pedestrianism? Of course not. The real problem is that Florida doesn't offer many ways for pedestrians to safely navigate its streets. (And moreover throws a lot of dangerous drivers their way; in 2007 its alcohol-impaired fatality rate, adjusted for miles driven, was more than twice as high as the state with the lowest rate.)
Facts like these tend to trickle into, and corrupt, crash-reporting statistics. As the Surface Transportation Policy Project points out, "a cursory glance at state and national statistics reveals a substantial number of pedestrian fatalities occur outside a crosswalk. Yet a closer look at national data shows that 59 percent of pedestrian deaths for which location information was recorded happened in places where pedestrians had no convenient access to a crosswalk. While jaywalking is often cited as a cause of pedestrian accidents, less than 20 percent of fatalities occurred where a pedestrian was crossing outside an easily available crosswalk." And police, who largely tend to be in vehicles, often misinterpret such subtleties or exhibit a pronounced pro-driver bias. And so it's not uncommon to hear statements like he "came out of nowhere," when in fact the pedestrian was crossing legally. In many cases, the pedestrian is no longer around to offer a rebuttal.
Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.