Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Jaywalkers Beware

While walking to the Metro last Tuesday (May 26) I noticed something peculiar going down at the southeast corner of 13 & U, NW. A police officer was giving some poor bastard a $5 jaywalking ticket for crossing without a "walk" signal. Understandably, the guy looked a bit confused.

As I scuttled by, late to work as always, I overheard the officer trying to justify the ticket with something like, "...and it's dangerous because if you step into that intersection when the light's still green, you may be paying attention, but the people behind you will just follow you, thinking they have a walk signal."

I saw the same cop standing at the same corner today, so I thought it time to raise the alarm. And as a blogger, I naturally feel a duty to also opine valuably on the justice of jaywalking.

First of all, I don't buy that people will unknowingly fling themselves into dangerous intersections without looking just because someone else does. To quote society from the 1940's, "if your friend jumped off a bridge, would you?" Of course not, it's a stupid question, just like the 1940's. Unlike in the 1940's, people don't hang out around bridges. We hang out at upscale dive bars and places where we can pretend to understand jazz. Getting back to it, it's pretty obvious when the sign says "don't walk," and it's pretty easy to tell who among the group standing on the corner is gonna go for it. Those people are always hanging out 5 feet into the street, staring intently at the traffic patterns, looking like they're trying to steal third base.

And I don't even really know what jaywalking is. I always thought it meant you crossed the street where there's no crosswalk. I can understand why that's undesirable since it can impede traffic. But apparently jaywalking can take place in a crosswalk, too. In my opinion, if there's time to cross---i.e. not needing to weave through heavy traffic---and you're in a cross-walk, this is perfectly fine. It brings to mind the jaywalking scene in Harold and Kumer Go To White Castle when docile, law-abiding Harold gets thrown in jail for being pressured into crossing an empty country street in the middle of the night even though the sign says "don't walk." Who cares? Not me, not the drivers that don't exist, and not my independently-minded fellow pedestrians.

Mr. Kevin, Esq., pointed out that drivers trying to take righthand turns find it annoying when pedestrians cross the street when they don't have the "walk" signal, because it prevents them from making the turn. Nevermind that DC is a heavily pedestrianized city, let's first remember that pedestrians have the right-of-way in this situation, and that said driver is sitting at a red stoplight. The driver can legally take the righthand turn so long as s/he yields the right-of-way, which the pedestrian possesses. BUS-TED, Mr. Kevin!!

Finally, given that DC does indeed have other problems (do I even need to name them?), it's a bit annoying that the cops have chosen to crack down on jaywalking. I know what you're thinking..."But Brice Lord, 'broken windows,' Rudy Giuliani, the crack epidemic, 1990's urban crime, you know what I mean!!!" 'Broken windows' is applied psychology gone horribly wrong, and I'd rather see more cops working the beat on foot, getting to know the communities and building trust and understanding rather than ticketing the low-hanging fruit.

Sure, this really isn't that big of a deal, but I know if I got a jaywalking ticket while rushing to work at 8:00 am I'd be pretty pissed off. Not just because I think it's a ridiculous waste of time for the police (and for me), or because I think I should be able to do it, but also because it's inconsistent with previous enforcement behavior. Worse, it's essentially an indictment by my government that I've done something wrong, and that pisses me off more than anything (except Comcast). Nor do I get the impression that the general public really considers jaywalking that important. Run a Google image search on "jaywalker" and you'll get a page full of knitted socks and a horse (below).

A sobering reminder of the perils of jaywalking: a horse in a weird prone position.


EchoWhiskey said...

Watch the suckers who half-heartedly look up from their blackberries enough to follow the poor bastard in front of them. I agree with the officer in this case. It's one of those illegal things that everyone does, but it doesn't make it right or really help anyone. Is 30 seconds on the other side of the street really going to hurt you that much?

But, I agree with you digression into the need for more beat cops. I'd rather have them beating kids with their billy clubs (fun term), but this is a start.

Brice Lord said...

Yes, 30 seconds on the other side of the street saves me 5 minutes in the Metro because I know exactly when the train is coming. And no, I don't want to get up any earlier. How would it be my fault if some jackass can't look up from his phone before crossing the street? Isn't that his responsibility?

kob said...

>I don't buy that people will unknowingly fling themselves into dangerous intersections without looking just because someone else does.<

I was on Connecticut Avenue walking toward the Woodley Metro and a bunch of families and kids in route. I started to cross against the light and car, speeding, came along and was forced to retreat to the curb. The moment I stepped off the curb a few of the kids did as well, automatically -- they were following my lead without thinking. They had to make a quick retreat as well. I was actually startled by that realization.

I no longer assume that people have enough brains not to follow me ....

Alex said...

Actually, pedestrians *don't* have the right of way if they're crossing at a signaled intersection and they have a "don't walk" sign. Pedestrians always have right of way in crosswalks without signals, but a don't walk sign negates that. So Mr. Kevin is not busted.

Malnurtured Snay said...

I jaywalk every day on my way to the Metro station -- I cross Connecticut Ave because I don't want to wait for the light. Usually, this is just before 6:00 and the road is pretty empty. However, there are a lot of boneheads who do just blindly walk into the street that I observe when I'm downtown. If I get a jaywalking ticket, I'll accept it: I know it's dangerous, but I accept the risks of being hit by a car and by being fined.

And I found this definition on the Wikiepedia page for jaywalking:

'At a signalized crossing, a pedestrian is subject to the applicable pedestrian traffic signal or, if no pedestrian signal is displayed, the signal indications for the parallel vehicular movement. A pedestrian signal permits a pedestrian to begin crossing a street during the "Walk" display; the pedestrian is usually considered to be "jaywalking" only if he entered the crosswalk at some other time.'

AM said...

I can't count how many times a car has gunned a right turn right after the signal turns green, clearing me by inches. One reason people cross against the light is because it's just as dangerous to cross after the light is green. Pedestrian right-of-way is a foreign concept in this city. The cops should be ticketing the cars who refuse to give us the right of way.

Garrett said...

I understand the rules are the rules but i have seen cops on 17th street where I work cross against the light in between two cars. If they want to write tickets to those of us who break the "law" then they need to set an example by obeying it themselves. And I have no sympathy for adults who follow others blindly. They get what they get. Great post.

Jake T said...

In Finland, it is almost utterly taboo to cross against the light. No one does it. Ever.

And they have a *much* nicer society than we do. Coincidence? I think not.

sippinwineman said...

Funny points you make here, BUT (as a Washingtonian born and raise) one of my greatest feats as a teen (in the 80s) was needing to cross a street where there would be a crowd of tourists. . .and on more than 5 occasions the crowd would jaywalk with me (followed by yelling of chaperons and screams from kids). Good times, Good times

adspar said...

In my own experience, people do tend to just blindly follow jaywalkers, which is why I actually chose not to jaywalk in certain circumstances near the Friendship Heights station. It never occurred to me that I might get a ticket, but it did occur to me that my action might result in some unlucky person just going with the flow getting hurt.

But even if you accept that a danger of jaywalking is that less vigilant people will follow jaywalkers, that doesn't justify the government intervening against jaywalkers. It is disturbing to me how easily people will accept government interference in our lives based on arguments like "is 30 seconds going to hurt you that much" or "other people might copy you."

Anonymous said...

Wow, just $5. I had a coworker get ticketed for jaywalking around 18th and L, and it was $20. Wonder why the difference in price?

I jaywalk all the time on general principle. I'm an adult who had a mother who taught me how to properly cross a street. I don't need some blinking light to tell me how to live my life. If a drooling tourist follows me out into traffic - well, I'd say that's just Darwin's survival of the fittest at play.

Brice Lord said...

I really touched off an explosive topic here (unexpectedly). Obviously there's some genuine considerations for (safety, zombie-like mindlessness) and against (independence, government oversight, allocation of police resources). Hopefully at least it's been made clear through the public comments that it's not as clear cut as I may have indicated in the post. I gave my opinion, and I'm glad to read everyone else's.