Is Death an Appropriate Penalty for “Jaywalking”?

Last Saturday, the Daily News reported that a man was critically injured when he was struck by a Range Rover on 14th Street at Eighth Avenue Friday evening at around 6 p.m. The out-of-control SUV went on to strike several cars before coming to rest on its side.

rover.jpgAnother motorist falls prey to the urban jaywalker. Photo: James Poling

Though one witness told the Daily News that the driver — initially identified as "Alan Naman of Chelsea" before that information disappeared from the web version of the story — "had to be doing 60" miles per hour down 14th Street, the article took pains to point out that the unidentified victim was "jaywalking." Hence the headline "Jaywalker clings to life after being hit by SUV in Manhattan," rather than, as suggested by Streetsblog reader Eric McClure yesterday, "Jaywalker clings to life after being hit by speeding SUV."

All together now: The driver was not charged. 

In all fairness, the reporters and editors at the News were probably making an effort to present both sides of the story by even mentioning the vehicle’s alleged rate of travel — as if (also allegedly) crossing the street outside of a marked crosswalk were an offense on par with driving a 5,000-pound vehicle at highway speeds through a pedestrian populated urban environment. But the bias, intended or not, is revealed in the term "jaywalker" itself.

Care of the Chicago urbanist blog west north, an excerpt from Peter D. Norton’s 2008 book "Fighting Traffic" offers a lesson in early 20th-century etymology.

A ‘jay’ was a hayseed, out of place in the city; a jaywalker was someone who did not know how to walk in a city. Originally the term applied as much or more to pedestrians who obstructed the path of other pedestrians — by failing, for example, to keep to the right on the sidewalk. As autos grew common on city streets, jaywalkers were more often pedestrians oblivious to the danger of city motor traffic… ‘Jaywalker’ carried the sting of ridicule, and many objected to branding independent-minded pedestrians with the term. In 1915 New York’s police commissioner, Arthur Woods, attempted to use it to describe anyone who crossed the street at mid-block. The New York Times objected, calling the word ‘highly opprobrious’ and ‘a truly shocking name.’ Any attempt to arrest pedestrians would be ’silly and intolerable.’

The cleverest anti-jaywalking publicity effort was in Detroit in 1922, where the Packard Motor Car Company exploited the new fashion for monuments to traffic fatalities. Packard built an oversized imitation tombstone that closely resembled the monument to the innocent child victims of accidents in Baltimore. But Packard’s tombstone redirected blame to the victims. It was marked ‘Erected to the Memory of Mr. J. Walker: He Stepped from the Curb Without Looking.’

A St. Louisan, defending pedestrians’ traditional rights to the street, tried to turn the ‘jaywalking’ label against those who promoted it. ‘We hear the shameful complaint of jay walkers, to console jay drivers,’ he wrote. ‘It is the self-conceited individual who thinks people are cattle and run upon them tooting a horn.’ ‘Make every machine stop and wait,’ he demanded, ‘until the road is clear, and give precedent to people who are walking. The streets belong to the people and not to any one class, and we have an equal right, in fact more right than the automobile.’ But promoters of the epithet ‘jay driver’ failed.

In 1920, when the wave of public safety campaigns was just beginning, ‘jaywalker’ was a rare and controversial term. Safety weeks, more than anything else, introduced the word to the millions. Frequent use wore down its sharp edge, and it passed into acceptable usage as a term for lawless pedestrians who would not concede their old rights to the streets, even in the dawning motor age.

And so, thanks in part to the burgeoning auto industry, walking outside the lines became a transgression punishable by injury or death, with little or no commensurate responsibility assigned to those doing the injuring and killing.

Almost as an afterthought, the News reported in the same story that an
elderly man, again unidentified, was struck dead by a taxi driver on Sixth Avenue near
57th Street Friday night. His crime? "Crossing against the light."

"I was driving up Sixth Ave. and the next thing I know he was lying on
my windshield," said driver Mohammad Islam, 27, who was not charged.

  • Larry Littlefield

    It’s all about speed.

    I have to hit the brakes or make turns to avoid jaywalkers every day, but since I’m only riding at 10-15 miles per hour at most on a bicycle, I can do so within a few feet.

    I also have better visibility than I do when driving my car, let alone in a truck.

    And if a collision were to occur, the fact that I am on a bicycle and moving slowly means serious injuries are less likely.

    The fact that I commute by bicycle and transit also means I drive more slowly in my car. Why? The nature of the remaining trips I take by motor vehicle. It’s one thing to lose a couple of minutes getting somewhere once a week, it’s another to do so in both directions every day.

  • Glenn

    It’s amazing that in our effort to make something “safer” through “education”, what we really do is discourage people from even engaging in that activity in the first place. Public safety efforts need to be more holistic, looking at all the different factors that contribute to a safer environment rather than looking at each discrete issue and trying to solve that one.

    For instance, crime is a good example. Once a neighborhood or street or park gets classified as “dangerous”, people stop going there and businesses move away, making it even more dangerous. The appropriate response might be to create a dog run or hold a community event right in the middle of the troubled area.

    Education is important, but it shouldn’t create a chilling effect on the whole activity if that activity is what should be encouraged. Otherwise, we’d all be encouraged to drive in SUVs expect anyone who can’t afford one would be expected to wear full body armor, inflate-on-impact airbags and helmets.

  • How about just “Jaywalker clings to life after being hit by speeder.” That way you make it clear that they were both breaking the law.

  • How about just “Jaywalker clings to life after being hit by speeder.”

    I would be surprised to see a news report write this. Unless they were drunk, drivers usually go unmentioned in the headlines, and are treated like shocked bystanders. In the Daily News headline above, the man crossing the street was hit by an “SUV”–an inanimate object, as though there were no human being who decided to drive 60 miles per hour on an urban street, and is now responsible for someone’s death.

  • Joe

    “That way you make it clear that they were both breaking the law.”

    That’s fine except there is nothing to indicate that the driver broke any laws except an eyewitness who claims that the driver made a turn onto 14th street doing 60mph. Except of course, it’s physically impossible for a Range Rover to make that type of turn, in fact trying to make a turn like that at any speed over over 30 is asking for trouble.

  • Once upon a time you could walk in the streets as if it was your own room. Then the traffic engineers went to work, but at first they didn’t want to control cars, they wanted to control people.

  • The only way to stop these deaths is for cops to start aggressively ticketing jaywalkers, because America and especially New York have a culture of jaywalking where only losers actually wait for the signal to cross a street. And the only way that will likely change is by punishing jaywalkers. Because let’s face it, even cars traveling at legal speeds can mow down a jaywalker and they won’t be at fault.

    Not that I’m advocating any of this, I just think it’s the only realistic way to solve the problem.

  • Mhelie, wonderful link, thank you.

  • al oof

    rhywun – you don’t think that charging people who kill other people with their cars might make drivers a little more aware of people crossing the street?

  • Selden

    There are two people at fault here: the jaywalker and the driver. The alleged speed of the SUV is way too fast for the city. The idiot that crosses a busy thoroughfare like 14th St., is just begging for some type of confrontation whether it’s an SUV, a sub-compact or a biker.

    There is a general lack of common sense in evidence in our city. Too many folks feel that they have a right to dash out into traffic against the green or in the middle of the block. And let’s not get started on the optimistic fools who step off of the curb before the walk sign changes (Baby carriage lady on Houston and Broadway comes to mind – oh, that’s right she stayed on the curb while her infant dared the cars!).

    Then there are those who run red lights; speed up to beat an amber light; and those who think that NASCAR has finally gotten their New York area venue.

    There is a general disregard for others by both entities, a lack of respect if you will. But it is part and parcel with the overall unraveling of the city’s fabric of life. “It doesn’t matter that it is not right, what matters is that I don’t give a damn.” A very sad indictment against all of us who live within the 5 boros.

    Unless there is a cap lodged in your posterior, or you have vacate like nobody’s business, then what is the rush? Slow down; cross at the green (and to you bikers out there) ride the correct way on the bike path!

    I happen to drive a car, ride a 10-speed and yes wear out the soles of my shoes. I engage in all sorts of transport. In fact, if I had my druthers, the dang streets would belong to just me! So, get out of my way whether walking, talking or just plain stalking.

  • Boris

    This is a fairly pro-pedestrian article, if you ask me. Newspaper articles are all about headlines and first lines, and the first line starts with “A luxury SUV barreling around a corner in Manhattan…” That was all average newspaper readers need to decide that the SUV driver was the guilty party.

    What’s more incredible for me even than the fact that the driver was not charged is that his insurance is likely to go up dramatically unless he can explain his actions as being outside of his control. So he is guilty as far as his insurance company is concerned.

  • Woody

    Since more than 50% of all NYC households don’t even own a car, in a democracy the non-drivers should get more than 50% of the street.

    No, instead the streets are turned over to the richer and more wasteful fraction of society. They get to park their cars at curbside free and they get many lanes to fill with their SUVs and Minis, with help from their driving friends from outside the city.

    Meanwhile the majority of our citizens are forced to walk on crowded sidewalks and get called names if they dare to step into the drivers’ turf.

    I don’t want congestion pricing. I want cars banned from Manhattan! Take them back to Jersey where they belong.

  • Andy

    “The out-of-control SUV went on to strike several cars before coming to rest on its side.”

    You mean, “The out-of-control DRIVER of an SUV…”

  • I wonder who the St. Louisan was. Sounded like a good article.

  • @Joe,

    That’s fine except there is nothing to indicate that the driver broke any laws except an eyewitness who claims that the driver made a turn onto 14th street doing 60mph. Except of course, it’s physically impossible for a Range Rover to make that type of turn, in fact trying to make a turn like that at any speed over over 30 is asking for trouble.

    Um, the fact that the SUV hit several parked cars and ended up on its side would indicate that “trouble” is exactly what it found. As for eyewitnesses, I believe only one was quoted saying the victim was jaywalking.

    The bottom line is that people drive way too fast in this city. The speed limit should be 20 mph in densely populated or residential neighborhoods. Yes, if someone steps from between cars directly into the path of a car, something bad is going to ensue, but when I drive, or bike, I try to do so with the idea in the back of my head that just such a thing might occur — and I wouldn’t want it on my conscience that I might have been able to avoid someone if I’d just been going a little slower or paying a little more attention.

  • Glenn

    Boris – that’s an implication folks rarely remember. The penalties are more civil than criminal usually, but you never hear about that. It would be interesting if reporters started to at least mention that the driver would most likely face a civil lawsuit from the relatives of the deceased and points on his license.

    but that probably doesn’t make as good copy as an arrest and actual criminal charges.

  • Changing the law so that urban speed limits topped out at 15MPH would prevent almost all of these needless deaths, not to mention hundreds of thousands of injuries.

    Dramatically cutting allowable speeds would have very little impact on people’s travel time to work; it might actually shorten them if the lower urban speeds helped create a mode shift away from the automobile.

    This could be done through better enforcement and traffic calming, or through regulators on vehicles – take your pick.

    Either we lower urban speeds, or we accept continuing carnage for years to come.

  • you don’t think that charging people who kill other people with their cars might make drivers a little more aware of people crossing the street?

    I said I’m just being realistic. In a driver vs. jaywalker collision, the driver is simply not going to be charged and you know that. I agree that he will likely be punished heavily in civil court (and by his insurance company) and the media should emphasize that fact.

  • al oof

    but rhywun, what you’re saying doesn’t make sense. i know that jaywalkers aren’t going to be charged with jaywalking. you’re saying getting less jaywalkers on the streets is the solution, but how is that more realistic (considering how difficult that would be) than charging people criminally for killing people with their cars, which happens much less frequently?

    while i do know -that- drivers will not be charged, i don’t know -why- they are never charged. is it unrealistic to think that someone who kills someone with their car at least be charged with criminal negligence? isn’t that what they charge people who leave their kids in their cars while they run errands get charged with?

  • Because jaywalkers *do* occasionally get punished. Everybody who does it knows there is a tiny chance of it happening, especially with cops all over the place these days. All it takes is the captain to tell his officers one morning, hey guys, round up some jaywalkers today. Drivers who are–by law–not guilty never do. To change that, you have to change existing law–not an easy thing.

  • k.geis

    Streetsblog errs by suggesting jaywalkers should be able to cross the street whenever they wish.

    Cars are a necessary and proper component of modern life, and time-division of rights of way on city streets is wholly warranted. Plenty of reasonable people will disagree that jaywalking should always be A-OK. They’re right.

    No reasonable person will disagree that the driver in this case should have been charged with a crime; and most will be appalled if it’s the case that he actually can’t be, or /isn’t/ in violation of some existing law.

    Stay on target.

  • It would be useful to know what the witness meant by “jaywalking.”

    Did the victim start crossing against an unblinking red light? That’s jaywalking. But…

    Did the victim start crossing against a blinking red light that later stopped blinking?

    Did the victim start crossing with a green light that later turned to blinking red?

    Did the victim start crossing with a green light that later turned to blinking red and then to steady red? This is possible with some older folks or the disabled, especially if the traffic light’s pedestrian interval is too brief.

    Did the victim start crossing with either a green or blinking red light, only to find himself stranded by turning cars that failed to yield as required by law? And by the way, isn’t this a daily occurrence for pretty much every pedestrian in New York City?

    We don’t really know, do we? The witness was not specific enough. But we are pretty positive that a person was killed, that the SUV overturned, and that it hit three parked cars. And all of this would be far less likely to happen if the driver hadn’t been speeding.

    We need a comprehensive system of traffic cameras at every intersection to record these “accidents,” arrive at the real truth, and ensure that drivers who flout the law — and kill in the process — are finally identified, prosecuted, jailed, and their licensed permanently revoked.

    We also need to ensure that the pedestrian interval is long enough to ensure that people, including slow moving people, can cross the street safely.


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