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The History of Jaywalking in the U.S.


While the term jaywalking has been used for decades, the origin of the word itself seems to come from several different sources. Before the 20th century, streets were primarily the domain of pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages. The concept of jaywalking, as we understand it now, didn’t exist. People traversed streets freely, navigating a shared space with slower-moving vehicles. However, the roaring arrival of the automobile in the early 1900s drastically altered this dynamic.

The Origins of “Jaywalking”

According to one source, the term “jaywalking” finds its roots in early 20th-century slang, where “jay” denoted someone unsophisticated or naive. Coined during the rise of automobiles, it initially carried connotations of ignorance towards traffic laws. Pedestrians who failed to navigate the burgeoning streets with care were labeled “jaywalkers.

In Bloomberg news, along the same lines, it was thought that “jay” was a Midwestern slang for “country idiot” or “hick” created to ridicule people who weren’t ‘in the know’ about modern city rules. This reflected a societal shift as cities became increasingly congested with both vehicles and foot traffic.

In Merriam-Webster, jaywalker was pre-dated by jay-driver – a driver of a horse-drawn carriage or automobile that refused to abide by the traffic laws by driving on the wrong side of the road. Jay-walker began being used to scold those who lacked sidewalk etiquette and did not move the right side of the sidewalk when coming face to face with someone.

Early Regulation of Jaywalking

Before the automobile’s dominance, streets served as shared spaces where pedestrians, horse-drawn carriages, and early vehicles coexisted. However, the advent of automobiles brought about new challenges and safety concerns. Cities responded with traffic regulations, including rules governing pedestrian behavior. Crosswalks, traffic signals, and other infrastructure emerged as well to manage the flow of both people and vehicles.

From Jaywalking Ordinances to Enforcement

During the early 20th century, cities across the U.S. began passing ordinances targeting jaywalking. Kansas City passed the first ordinance in 1912 requiring pedestrians to use crosswalks. These laws aimed to restrict pedestrian movement and prioritize vehicle traffic.

Penalties for jaywalking varied, ranging from fines to imprisonment. Enforcement often targeted marginalized communities, leading to criticism of discriminatory practices. Nevertheless, jaywalking remained synonymous with reckless behavior, perpetuating the narrative of pedestrian irresponsibility.

The Rise of Pedestrian Accidents

In the early 1900’s there were no traffic laws. There we no stop lights, stop signs, road markings, speed limits, parking spaces, driver’s licenses, or driver’s education. Drinking and driving happened and wasn’t considered a crime.

The left turn as known today in America wasn’t in existence then. Individuals would cut corners and turn as is done with a right-hand turn. This often caught pedestrians unaware and placed them at a higher risk of danger.

The Detroit News reported that during this time three-quarters of auto fatalities were pedestrians – especially children playing in the street. Pedestrians would often have to scramble out of the way as they couldn’t judge the speed of the car coming at them. In Detroit, some started to demand that pedestrians only cross at designated crosswalks. It received pushback from those who loathed cars. Eventually, the driving laws in place today were all created to keep cars and pedestrians safe.

A Look at Pedestrian Accidents Today

While there are many laws implemented today, unfortunately, it hasn’t eliminated pedestrian accidents or fatalities. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2021, a staggering 7,388 pedestrians lost their lives in traffic crashes in the US. This is equivalent to a pedestrian fatality every 71 minutes.

A Vancouver pedestrian accident attorney stated that pedestrians have little to no protection when walking and that is true. They do not have the metal encasement of a car and even if they utilize a crosswalk there is still a chance of them being in danger. While jaywalking can contribute to pedestrian fatalities, it’s crucial to recognize the broader factors at play. Poor road design, inadequate infrastructure, and driver negligence often play significant roles in pedestrian accidents as well.

Moving Towards Pedestrian-Centric Cities

In recent years, there has been a growing movement to reassess jaywalking laws and prioritize pedestrian safety in urban planning. Cities like New York and San Francisco have implemented initiatives to create pedestrian-friendly streetscapes.

These efforts include pedestrian plazas, traffic-calming measures, and improved crosswalks. By prioritizing human-centered design and fostering inclusive urban environments, cities can enhance pedestrian safety and promote sustainable mobility.

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