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Will Jaywalking Reforms Make You Safer?

By Arin E. Berkson, J.D. on November 15, 2022 10:43 AM

California has passed a new law that makes it okay to jaywalk sometimes. Starting Jan. 1, 2023, police officers in California can only ticket pedestrians when their behavior would make a collision likely. California joins Virginia, Massachusetts, Nevada, Philadelphia, and Kansas City, Missouri, which have also recently reformed their jaywalking laws and enforcement practices.

Jaywalking laws have been around for about a century. Before cars ruled the streets, people walked wherever they wanted. As cars became more common in the 1920s, pedestrian-car accidents skyrocketed, as did pedestrian deaths. Concerned anti-car activists began to push for laws regulating drivers. At the same time, auto manufacturers and driving clubs pushed for jaywalking laws to regulate pedestrians. In the end, jaywalking laws regulating where and when people could be on the street won out.

What’s Behind the Changes?

So, why is there a push to relax jaywalking laws now? One of the main motivations driving changes to these laws is the desire to reduce racial profiling. For example, Black people make up about 9% of the population in Los Angeles, yet they receive about one-third of all jaywalking tickets in the city over the past decade.  

Another reason that activists want to reform jaywalking laws is to encourage people to ditch their cars and walk more. Advocates for pedestrian-friendly cities say that unfair enforcement of jaywalking laws and unrealistic crossing rules — like limiting street crossing to crosswalks — make it difficult for people to lead more active lifestyles.

Pedestrian Safety at a Low Point

But as reformers try to fix inequities and encourage alternative modes of transportation by relaxing jaywalking laws, pedestrian deaths are at a 40-year high. Drivers killed an estimated 7,485 pedestrians in 2021. Since speeding, drunk driving, and distracted driving have also increased during this time, it is unknown whether continuing to enforce jaywalking laws would make pedestrians safer. Those in favor of jaywalking law reform argue that enforcing jaywalking laws would not increase safety since the laws were passed to protect drivers from liability, not to protect pedestrians from harm.

Walking advocates say the way to improve pedestrian safety is not through enforcing jaywalking laws. In their view, city planning that prioritizes safe walking and other alternative modes of transportation will make pedestrians safer. Cities and towns can use sidewalks, better lighting at night, raised crosswalks, and pedestrian islands to make streets safer for pedestrians. Preliminary research shows that traffic calming measures can also be beneficial.

Effects of Jaywalking Reform

With jaywalking reforms being so recent, it is too soon to tell if relaxing the laws will have a measurable effect on reversing racial discrimination or pedestrian deaths.

When it comes to the recent increase in pedestrian deaths nationally, Virginia appears to not be following the trend. Since reforming jaywalking laws in 2020, there has not been a reported increase in pedestrian deaths there. Kansas City, Missouri, which repealed its criminal jaywalking laws completely in 2021, has not reported it is up-to-date pedestrian death data. Nevada, which changed jaywalking from a criminal misdemeanor to a civil fine in June 2021, reported 85 pedestrian deaths in 2021, up from 82 in 2020.

While jaywalking laws are changing in some places across the country, pedestrians are still facing tickets for jaywalking across the vast majority of the U.S. If you find yourself in that situation, an experienced traffic ticket lawyer may be able to help.

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