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Nation Roused Against Motor Killings

Freedom to Walk – From Pedestrian Responsibilities to Pedestrian Rights

By Jessica Thompson, Safe, Accessible and Inclusive Mobility Program Manager at Hawaiʻi Public Health Institute and Abbey Seitz, Director of Transportation Equity at Hawaiʻi Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice

Hawaiʻi has already seen multiple pedestrian fatalities in the new year. While nearly all of the media coverage of these deadly collisions has focused on the actions of the pedestrians – noting if they were or were not in a marked crosswalk – little attention has been paid to traffic safety solutions. 

This is why Hawaiʻi Public Health Insitute supports the Freedom to Walk movement, otherwise known as the “decriminalizing jaywalking” movement.

Decriminalizing jaywalking is not just a matter of legal reform; it is fundamentally a public health imperative. The current punitive approach to jaywalking has inadvertently contributed to an environment where pedestrians are deterred from engaging in a basic, health-promoting activity – walking. Numerous studies have underscored the positive health effects of regular physical activity, including walking. By decriminalizing jaywalking, we remove a barrier that discourages people from incorporating walking into their daily routines. Encouraging walking not only reduces the risk of sedentary-related health issues but also fosters a sense of community and well-being. This “victim-blaming” is in part due to jaywalking laws. Generally, jaywalking laws prohibit pedestrians from crossing a street outside of designated crosswalks or against traffic signals. Although jaywalking is foundational to the way many Americans understand roadway safety, it is a relatively young concept. Jaywalking laws were enacted in the 1920’s following a lobbying campaign by the auto industry to shift the blame onto pedestrians for the national rise in traffic fatalities. Unfortunately, jaywalking laws have done little to prevent the nation’s growing traffic violence. Moreover, jaywalking tickets have been found to disproportionately impact people of color. 

Over the past few years, legislation to repeal or reform jaywalking laws has been enacted in Virginia, California, Nevada, Denver, and Kansas City. About 51 million Americans now live in places where jaywalking has been decriminalized in some form. 

Hawaiʻi Appleseed and HIPHI are joining this national movement by advocating for the Freedom to Walk bill (SB 2630/HB 1623) in the 2024 legislative session. The bill prevents pedestrians from being stopped by a law enforcement officer, fined, or subjected to any other penalty for jaywalking (unless there is an immediate danger of a collision with a moving vehicle). 

History of Jaywalking Laws 

Before the invention of petroleum gas in the 1920s and the rise of automobiles, streets were considered a public space for vendors, children, and the elderly alike. As cars increased in popularity, so did pedestrian injuries and fatalities. Just like today, the majority of pedestrians killed were children and the elderly. The public decried these fatalities; large monuments in cities were erected; and local newspapers covered traffic violence in detail. 

News coverage from this period typically blamed drivers for the rising death of pedestrians. A 1924 cartoon featured in the New York Times exemplifies this messaging, representing cars as killing machines—the “grim reaper” of cities. The sentiment reflected the laws of the time as well. Before formal traffic laws were put in place, judges typically ruled that, in any collision, the larger vehicle (i.e., the car) was to blame.

This public outcry spurred anti-car activists in cities across the country to advocate for laws to limit the speed of vehicles (i.e., requiring speed governors), and restrict certain types of vehicles from urban centers. Understanding the threat to the growth of the industry, auto groups took action to stop the proposed measures and worked to legally redefine the street so that pedestrians, rather than cars, would be restricted. Unfortunately, the auto industry won the battle. After auto groups took control of a series of meetings convened by Herbert Hoover to create a national traffic law model, most cities enacted a form of the 1928 Model Municipal Traffic Ordinance, requiring that pedestrians only cross the street at crosswalks and only at right angles.

To further the enforcement of the new traffic laws, auto groups used local media to reshape the narrative about traffic violence. Auto groups also lobbied police to publicly shame transgressors by whistling or shouting at them. It is from this shaming strategy that the word jaywalking originates. During this time, the word “jay” meant something similar to a “hick.” Pro-auto groups promoted the use of the word “jay walker” as someone who didn’t know how to walk in a city, and threatened public safety. 

The Failure of Jaywalking Laws 

Don't Jay Walk - Watch Your Step
Source: National Safety Council/Library of Congress

While jaywalking laws were successful in shaping how Americans view pedestrians, they failed to create safe streets. In 2022, there were over 43,300 traffic-related fatalities across the United States. Some 7,500 (18 percent) of those killed were pedestrians, representing the highest number of pedestrian deaths since 1981. 

Hidden within these statistics are staggering class and racial disparities, with Black and Brown, low-income, elderly, and disabled individuals disproportionately represented among pedestrian deaths. Nationally, the pedestrian death rate among Black people is 118 percent higher than it is among White people. Similar trends occur in Hawaiʻi. For example, 2020 data shows that Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are three times more likely than White residents to be killed or injured in traffic collisions on Hawaiʻi Island. 

Jaywalking laws also disproportionately impact people of color. For example, a 2019 study found that 90% of jaywalking tickets in New York City were given to Black and Hispanic people, although they only make up 55% of the city’s population.

Despite these alarming trends, media outlets continue to blame pedestrians and largely fail to call attention to the conditions which led to traffic violence. Data shows that 70 percent of pedestrian deaths occur in areas where no sidewalks are present. The growing popularity of large SUVs and trucks is also important. The larger and heavier a vehicle is, the lower the chances a pedestrian will survive a collision. Over the last 10 years, the number of traffic deaths involving SUVs has increased 120 percent. 

The United States is a global outlier in roadway deaths. In recent years, other countries have done more to reduce traffic deaths by lowering vehicle speeds through road diets, increasing the visibility of pedestrians at intersections, restricting vehicle access in areas of high foot-traffic, and building sidewalks, off-street pathways, and other infrastructure that physically separates cars and people. 

In Hawaiʻi, jaywalking laws have not been successful in reducing pedestrian deaths. It is clear that business-as-usual will not create safer streets and communities. It is time for our state to shift resources away from penalizing pedestrians, and redirect resources towards providing infrastructure so that people can safely walk, bike and roll. 

Moreover, the current focus on penalizing jaywalkers detracts attention from addressing the root causes of pedestrian accidents, such as inadequate infrastructure and unsafe road conditions. A public health-oriented approach requires a holistic perspective that considers the entire ecosystem influencing pedestrian safety. Resources that are currently allocated to enforcing jaywalking laws could be redirected to invest in comprehensive urban planning, including the creation of safer crosswalks, improved lighting, and the construction of accessible sidewalks. By prioritizing the creation of pedestrian-friendly environments, we can actively contribute to reducing accidents and fatalities, thus promoting the overall health and well-being of the community.

A crucial step in this movement is decriminalizing jaywalking through the passage of the Freedom to Walk legislation. Be part of the pedestrian rights movement by testifying in support of this bill in 2024! To learn more about the Freedom to Walk movement here in Hawaiʻi, please check out Hawaiʻi Appleseed’s recent policy brief here.

Sources

  • County of Hawaiʻi. (2020). Hawaiʻi Island Vision Zero Action Plan. Prepared by SSFM International. Available here
  • Governors Highway Safety Association. (2022). Report on Pedestrian Traffic Fatalities by State. Available here.
  • Kuntzman, Gersh. (2020). ‘Jaywalking While Black’: Final 2019 Numbers Show Race-Based NYPD Crackdown Continues. StreetsBlog NYC. Available here.  
  • Stomber, Joseph. (2015). The Forgotten History of How Automakers Invented the Crime of “Jaywalking.” Vox. Available here.
  • Schmitt, Angie. (2022). The Progress of Jaywalking Reform. America Walks. Available here.
Jessica Thompson

Jessica Thompson

Program Manager: Safe, Accessible and Inclusive Mobility (SAIM)
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