BETWEEN THE LINES: Jaywalking, for those only familiar with the term from occasional segments on “The Tonight Show,” can have dire consequences. Jay Leno casually — and lawfully — “jaywalks” Los Angeles streets, seeking spontaneous responses to questions from pedestrians, which are then painstakingly edited to amuse his audience. But, the act of “jaywalking” in many cities is actually a traffic safety violation.
The term has existed for almost a century and refers to pedestrians unlawfully crossing a street at a designated crossing or at an intersection without regard for oncoming traffic. It likely became a low-level public safety ordinance after a surge of vehicular traffic, particularly in urban areas, where it has sort of evolved into a group sport.
Seasoned New York pedestrians may justify that “Don’t Walk” signals mean don’t cross when a vehicle approaches, so why not cross the street when there isn’t a vehicle in sight or, at least, a safe distance away?
Nonetheless, the rarely enforced regulation became the focus of an NYPD ticket blitz last month, which targeted a few neighborhoods, following three deaths within a two-block area on the Upper West Side, including a nine-year-old boy, over a nine-day period.
The crackdown was logical and resulted in two citations in one day, but one incident stirred criticism when, according to media accounts, officers tried to issue a summons to an 84-year-old man, but reportedly “manhandled” him when he tried to leave the scene. Apparently, the senior citizen did not understand English and, therefore, could not comply with the officers’ request.
Unless the elderly man had been physically aggressive, which was never reported, it’s hard to understand why two burly police officers weren’t more tactful — and gentler — with the man, who was left bloodied and suing the city and the police department. In one interview, the man said he had the right of way, but the light changed to red before he reached the opposite corner.
Last Friday, at a Community Board 7 meeting, the Department of Transportation presented proposals to improve conditions where the three pedestrians were killed a few weeks ago.
Two days before that forum, according to the Daily News, a 70-year-old jaywalker was critically injured when he was hit by a car on 11th Avenue, several miles south of the problem Upper West Side locale.
Brooklyn has not been immune to the ticket blitz, as Park Slope’s 78th Precinct reportedly issued more than a dozen summonses recently, over two days, to drivers who failed to yield to pedestrians, including undercover cops, in crosswalks.
Years ago, there was a public service safety campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of jaywalking with ads that featured the catchy phrase, “Don’t cross the street in the middle, in the middle, in the middle, in the middle, in the middle of the block” and another that reminded us “to cross at the green, not in between.”
Few would argue that darting out in front of cars at intersections or running out mid-block between parked vehicles is not the fault of the pedestrian. Less risky crosswalks serve a distinct purpose to ensure pedestrian safety with a distinct and clear path across the street.
The epitome of jaywalking was depicted in an iconic scene from the movie “Midnight Cowboy.” As Dustin Hoffman’s down-and-out character, Ratso Rizzo, crosses a Manhattan intersection against the light, a taxi nearly hits him. The jaywalking Ratso stops and slams his hand on the car’s hood and shouts, “I’m walkin’ here! I’m walkin’ here!” at the driver. The scene was funny and no one got hurt, but reflected how common jaywalking was on city street corners, where drivers seldom yield to pedestrians.
I was nearly ticketed for jaywalking in Los Angeles many years ago. While walking in Westwood, one of LA’s few pedestrian-friendly communities, a co-worker and I crossed a street in mid-block only to be met on the other side by a police officer. Even though there were no cars approaching from either direction, the officer told us why he stopped us and asked for IDs. When he handed back our driver’s licenses, he said something like, “Jaywalking may permitted in New York, but it is not in Los Angeles.”
My friend and I were shocked, but laughed our asses off after he was out of hearing distance.
Incidentally, in Los Angeles, pedestrians have the right of way in most instances.
Jaywalking in New York is widespread and occurs, I daresay, as often as double parking. Both are unlawful and may impede traffic flow, but, until recently, it was unlikely you’d get a summons for the former breach. Drivers and pedestrians should abide by laws established for their safety or be prepared to pay the consequences if caught. Nevertheless, while drivers should always be alert for pedestrians, pedestrians now need to be more attentive before jaywalking because, in addition to putting your safety in jeopardy, it might take a small bite out of your budget.
Until 1998, the fine for jaywalking was a mere $2 for decades, but got bumped to 50 bucks under Mayor Giuliani. These days, such fines are determined by the courts, which may be as much as $100, depending on the violation.
As a driver, I’m aware that pedestrians engage in the unlawful urban habit, so I remain alert for the careless, in crosswalks or not, and do my best to accommodate them.
As a pedestrian, I’ve experienced drivers who rarely give a second thought about yielding, even when I had the right of way.
Most of all, whether behind the wheel or walking, remain cautious because reckless drivers and jaywalkers are not road scholars.
Neil S. Friedman is a veteran reporter and photographer, and spent 15 years as an editor for a Brooklyn weekly newspaper. He also did public relations work for Showtime, The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. Friedman contributes a weekly column called “Between the Lines” on life, culture and politics in Sheepshead Bay.
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