Some seriously out of control jaywalking. Source: Brian Robinson (bhr1) / Flickr

Some seriously out of control jaywalking. Source: Brian Robinson (bhr1) / Flickr

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?

Source: Wikipedia

A standard pedestrian crossing signal. Source: Wikipedia

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.

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.

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  • Andy Baum

    “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.”

    This is a separate issue involving, on the one hand, pedestrians who are legally and lawfully crossing the street, and drivers who aggressively maneuver their vehicles through the intersection in order to make a turn. This is the one instance where it is often more dangerous for a pedestrian to obey the law because the drivers do not cede right-of-way…

    • guest

      Yep. Always the drivers fault. Never anyone else.

      • Andy Baum

        Just pointing out that this paragraph is a separate issue and not pertinent to the rest of the article. OK, “guest”?

    • Neil

      As I concluded above, neither inconsiderate drivers nor jaywalkers are either above the law, or roads scholars.
      Nonetheless, thanks for reading and your welcome, astuite comment.

    • Rocking Ham Fan

      Cracking down on cars not yielding? The city will have a budget surplus crisis in a month! What a welcome development.

  • BrooklynBus

    Where do you get your information that the fine is determined by the court and is as much as $100 when the media reported the fine for jaywalking was $250? Also, I know someone who was fined $20 for jaywalking after you say it was supposedly raised to $50.

    • Neil

      I stand by the information I culled from my research, though I’ve read that some jaywalkers may have received $250 fines, it seems the court is the final arbiter of the amount, much like parking fines.
      Thanks for your input and for reading the column.

  • guestwho

    Thank god its not the other dude writing who claims its okay for drivers to speed and go thru lights as long as it’s not by too much because all these drivers have such great judgment. At last a reasonable opinion on what’s going on out there on the road. Fact is, drivers are increasingly dangerous, pedestrians increasingly rude and careless, and bicycles are both. lets start cracking down on this bull before the casualties really mount.

    • Allan Rosen

      I assume you are referring to me.

      I never stated it is okay to go through red lights. There is a big difference between entering an intersection on a red light (which is only permissible to get out of the way of an emergency vehicle, or if the signal is stuck on red and obviously out of order) and entering on a green or amber and having the signal turn red before you clear the intersection which is perfectly legal.

      In fact, with a three second amber, it may not even be possible to get across a wide intersection that may take as long as six seconds driving at 20 mph before the signal turns red even if you entered it on the green. So quit making up things and accusing someone of saying something he never said.

    • 8asdj

      Actually Atlantic Cities just wrote about a study that the increase in bicycle traffic due to improved infrastructure and increased ridership in nyc showed a significant decrease in cyclists who disobey laws and shows that they are riding much safer than before. Proof indeed that if you prioritize bicycling/alternative transportation you can improve safety for everyone involved and that you the argument that there isn’t enough cyclists doesn’t make sense because you don’t justify bridges by counting the number of people swimming across rivers.

      • BrooklynBus

        That all depends how you define the word “prioritize”. If you mean give it a higher priority than it has now, or give a higher priority to bicycling/alternative transportation than to traditional modes. If you mean the latter, we have a problem.

        • Andrew

          What, pray tell, is a “traditional mode”?

          • BrooklynBus

            Traditional modes of transportation are taking the bus, driving or rail transportation. What I am saying is you can’t treat alternative modes like cycling, skateboarding, scooter, rollerblading, etc. as if they are the important modes of transportation because they are not. They are merely alternatives.

          • Andrew

            Just FYI: bicycles are more traditional than automobiles, and feet are of course much more traditional than either. All three, unlike skateboarding, scooters, and rollerblading, are regularly used for serious transportation, but thanks anyway for the red herring.

            One of my coworkers commutes to work about 75% of the time by bicycle (the other 25% of the time he takes the subway). If you told him that his bicycle was “merely” an “alternative,” he’d scratch his head – it’s his primary mode of transport for distances longer than a few blocks. It’s certainly not an alternative to a car, since he, like most other NYC residents, doesn’t even own a car.

  • M. Smart

    Road scholars just got it Ha Ha

    • Neil

      Momentary brain freeze? LOL