Jaywalking laws help nobody

Antonia Malchik
4 min readJul 24, 2023

They’re meant to keep pedestrians safe. Instead, they perpetuate car dominance.

Photo by Joseph Cooper on Unsplash

Supposedly, jaywalking laws save lives. Pedestrian lives, specifically. That’s what we’re told anyway. But their real accomplishment is to ensure the continuance of car dominance on public roads, which was a goal going back to when jaywalking laws first came into being in the early 1900s.

Prior to the 1920s everyone in America used the roads. Then, as today, cars were convenient but lethal machines that could easily kill a person on foot. It was incumbent on motorists to drive safely and watch out for walkers, wagons, horses, and the occasional bicycle.

Then, municipalities across the country began passing initiatives to restrict and slow motor traffic and strengthen punishments for injuring or killing pedestrians.

The growing car industry saw the risk to their business inherent in these laws and came up with a brilliant solution: mount a massive campaign to criminalize walking on roads and ensure that the public roads became the realm of drivers. People could no longer cross the street where they needed to because their bodies would impede motor traffic.

They became newly minted creatures: jaywalkers. The act of crossing the street where most convenient instead of only at intersections became illegal as well as dangerous.

We’ve been on that road ever since. This nearly century-old history has laid a foundation for laws that are hostile to any mode of transport that isn’t a car and puts the onus of safety on pedestrians rather than motorists. And that in turn opened a future where laws supposedly intended to save lives are often instead used to control marginalized populations.

But does everyday jaywalking enforcement even save lives?

The most oft-cited assessment, distilled by Tom Vanderbilt in this defense of jaywalking on Slate, says it doesn’t. But the evidence behind his conclusion is surprisingly thin. Vanderbilt brings up data showing that fewer than 20 percent of pedestrian fatalities in the U.S. occurred where a person was crossing outside an “easily available” crosswalk. Another study from the National High Transportation Safety Administration by contrast…

--

--

Antonia Malchik

Antonia Malchik is the author of A Walking Life: Reclaiming Our Health and Our Freedom One Step at a Time; walking, tech, community, and embodiment.