Jaywalking: Another law that nobody follows!

by Louis Grube on September 22, 2009

jay-walking-failWhile jogging around my college town the other day, I got to thinking about pedestrian traffic laws.  It occurred to me that I have neither followed them well myself nor seen them followed particularly well either.  There is apparently something about liberal arts students from New York, San Francisco, and every other large city known to man that makes them capable of both mosey-ing about in the street between the dining hall and the dorms and also ignoring imminent threats to mind and body caused by the cars that are, you know, just trying to be there too.  I began to wonder why we have laws dictating the flow of pedestrian traffic at all.  This got me thinking and I realized that there are a ton of laws that pretty much only bother people.  As the (self appointed) token student of philosophy on the writing staff of Legal Geekery, I’ve decided to take it upon myself to write a few posts of (almost actually good enough to be considered legal philosophy) legal philosophy that analyze laws that seem inconsequential and annoying.

I was annoyed by this pedestrian phenomena as a teen with a drivers license, speculative about the possibility that crossing carelessly could be convenient as a freshman here at Oberlin College, and guilty entirely of the violent crime of jay walking in front of cars while staring at the driver like a jerk during the remainder of my time at school.  I’ve decided to write about this topic first because it has a very certain character to it.  For a law to be both selectively enforced by police and almost uniformly dismissed as a general rule among the population, the question of why we have such a law needs to be answered.

To make things a bit more specific I’m going to focus on the facts ofAngry-Driverthe matter as they pertain to Ohio.  Traffic laws vary from state to state, but Ohio follows the Uniform Vehicle Code which is a set of traffic standards followed by many states and administered by The National Committee on Uniform Traffic Laws  and Ordinances.  The law regulating crossing of roads states that roads should be crossed at marked or unmarked crosswalks only, and that the pedestrian must yield right of way to drivers elsewhere.  Traffic laws pertaining to cars, however, do not relieve the driver of any duty to prevent a traffic collision with a pedestrian, even if the pedestrian does not have right of way.

Flash forward to a scenario where a person gets hit by a car.  In this hypothetical scenario, the facts support the assertion that this law is meaningless.  –  Also, for the philosophy NÜB, nobody is damaged in any really sad way because this is a thought experiment.   Nobody actually gets hurt, so you can feel better about thinking about the scenario.  –  A suit is filed against the driver for damages of some kind.  It is established that damages occurred, and in order to decide whether or not to award damages, and also how much to award them for, it is most common that an attempt to establish fault for the damages will happen.  Fault is decided most often by determining who in the situation is responsible for what percentage of the cause of the damages.  For example, the driver could be responsible 80% or 90%, depending on the facts of the collision.   The driver would then be responsible for paying a portion of the damages proportional to the level of fault that the driver is responsible for.  The catch here is that carelessness on the behalf of the pedestrian can never relieve the driver of his duty not to hit the pedestrian.  No amount of illegal jay walking could take responsibility away from the driver of the vehicle.  Damages cost the driver quite a bit, and if ticketed for jay walking at all, the pedestrian will be responsible for paying a tiny fee.

In this situation we see something important.  The law regulating pedestrian crossing has not served to hold pedestrians accountable for their actions.  It has not deterred, and certainly would not deter, a pedestrian from crossing in a dangerous setting.  With the way that pedestrian laws do not protect drivers from pedestrian misconduct, I’m shocked more people aren’t jumping out into the streets with the aim of collecting insurance settlements.  What then is the reason for this law?

Perhaps it is illegal for a less reasonable purpose. If you investigate the ways that the law is enforced, you find some interesting realities.  In Los Angeles particularly, and anecdotally I’ve seen this in San Francisco and New York personally, the jay walking law has become heavily enforced against the homeless.  Due to the inability of your average homeless person to pay a ticket of any sort, police are able to arrest the homeless once an arrest warrant had been issued for the nonpayment of said ticket. A quick Google News search will also show that a considerable number of cases of jay walking have been used to justify further investigations and often searches that result in far more serious charges for a very particular subset of people.  An obscenely high proportion of the jay walking mentioned in police blotters over the last week involve teenagers being reported by adult residents in upscale neighborhoods.  Another shocking trend is that a large fraction of these police interactions result in drug charges.

police-brutality-because-we-canIn these situations, investigation of jay walking allows police to legally justify the investigation and enforcement of other laws and social policies.  Even more scary is that we are almost all open to this particular form of legally justified search.  I am certain that the majority of people in the USA will end up jay walking at some point this year.  A police officer’s right to question or search you has to come from probable cause, and an initial minor traffic violation is often used to support the further investigation of many different crimes, most notably OVI or DUI.  A law that almost all people break, opens us all up to the possibility that we will be questioned in a way that could lead to further investigation.  I find this to be a scary and unfortunate legal situation.   The best way to open the American population up to considerably more invasive police scrutiny would be to make us all criminals in the eyes of the justice system, and as best can be told, we’re already one step along the road to that nightmare.