Sunday, September 01, 2013


The long-running “jaywalking” scam against pedestrians

On the streets of early 20th Century America, nothing moved faster than 10 miles per hour. Responsible parents would tell their children, “Go outside, and play in the streets. All day.”

And then the automobile happened. And then automobiles began killing thousands of children, every year.intro to the 99% Invisible podcast #76

by Larry Geller

99% Invisible inspiration

I learned about the 99% Invisible podcasts by Roman Mars just recently. How could I have missed them? Apparently they’re rated as the top #1 or #2 by whoever does these kind of ratings. Anyway, this episode resonated with me, and provided the inspiration and some of the material for this article.


Left to myself, I would read mainly websites offering news that interests me. 99% Invisible is a great source of “push,” that is, sending me information I wouldn’t have found on my own. Check it out.


It seems that whenever the local papers cover yet another senior mowed down in a crosswalk in Honolulu, the news soon turns to the responsibility of pedestrians to be more careful when crossing, stop “jaywalking” and obey the law.

Where did the word “jaywalking” come from, anyway? Why do pedestrians catch the flak almost exclusively for their deadly encounters with the motor car?

Often, the police react to an “incident” by cracking down on “jaywalking” at that spot or in Waikiki. There’s a followup story perhaps on how many tickets they gave out that day.

Then the cops disappear, and Honolulu continues to set national records for pedestrian deaths.

I’ve written about this many times, and noted that Honolulu also seems to require a barbaric “human sacrifice” before a new traffic light is installed.

Some things on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean should ideally remain the same over time, but an unacceptable traffic death toll is not one of them.

There’s never a meaningful crackdown on motorists who break the traffic laws, occasionally killing innocent pedestrians. If some tickets are issued, they’re not given out where they are needed, there’s no regular stakeouts at dangerous intersections, and the message is reinforced to drivers: you have nothing to fear as you run that red light, the police are nowhere in sight. Keep it up.

How is it that the pedestrian, in particular the “jaywalker,” gets all the blame and none of the protection?

It turns out that the word “jaywalker” itself originated in a campaign to shift blame for road deaths and injuries from the motorist to the pedestrian. It is part of a long-running and very successful marketing scheme that was the subject of a recent 99% Invisible podcast.


Kids used to play in the street

When I was a kid in Brooklyn, my mom sent me out to the street to play. By that time, “street” meant the stoop and courtyard in front of the house and the sidewalk, not the street where the cars were running.

Going back to the time frame of the podcast, the death toll resulting from mixing kids playing in the street with cars driving unsafely used to upset people.

Nation Roused(NY Times, 11/23/1924  via the 99% Invisible website)

The horrors of war appear to be less appalling than the horrors of peace. The automobile looms up as a far more destructive piece of mechanism than the machine gun. The reckless motorist deals more death than the artilleryman. The man in the street seems less safe than the man in the trench.

[NY Times, Nation Roused Against Motor Killings, 11/23/1924]

It would be hard to imagine an article as strongly worded as this one appearing in any newspaper today. The automobile-industrial-complex, a huge source of advertising revenue for the papers, would never permit it.

Another reason a similar article could not appear is that the campaign to blame these deaths on “jaywalking,” that is, on the actions of pedestrians, has been so successful. From the podcast:

Automotive interests banded together under the name Motordom. One of Motordom’s public relations gurus was a man named E. B. Lefferts, who put forth a radical idea: don’t blame cars, blame human recklessness. Lefferts and Motordom sought to exonerate the machine by placing the blame with individuals.
And it wasn’t just drivers who could be reckless—pedestrians could be reckless, too. Children could be reckless.

This subtle shift allowed for streets to be re-imagined as a place where cars belonged, and where people didn’t. Part of this re-imagining had to do with changing the way people thought of their relationship to the street. Motordom didn’t want people just strolling in.

So they coined a new term: “Jay Walking.” 

In the early 20th Century, “jay” was a derogatory term for someone from the countryside. Therefore, a “jaywalker” is someone who walks around the city like a jay, gawking at all the big buildings, and who is oblivious to traffic around him. The term was originally used to disparage those who got in the way of other pedestrians, but Motordom rebranded it as a legal term to mean someone who crossed the street at the wrong place or time.

A “jaywalker” is still a derogatory term, and so it is easy for police to ticket them and for the public to overlook the role of the motorist when the walker and the automobile unfortunately meet in the public streets.

I would suggest you click over and read the full story on the podcast page—it’s very well written, and the full article has images from the time and more background and detail. I think it presents a convincing argument that we’re being duped by the successors to “Motordom.”

And that by placing the blame solely on pedestrians and that creature of marketing, the “jaywalker,” we are letting drivers literally get away with murder.

The con is complete

The shift from motorist responsibility for street safety to pedestrians has been completed. Our approach at present revolves around pedestrian and school safety instruction, pedestrian control (push buttons before crossing is permitted, for example, or issuing tickets to pedestrians who fail to (or who cannot physically) obey crossing signs).

Enforcement of traffic laws varies by locality—in Honolulu it’s evident that City policy is not to enforce the laws on the books. Drivers are comfortable running red lights or failing to stop on right turns because they know that the chances a cop will see them is negligible.

In 1939 motordom’s work culminated in one of the most monumental works of promotional showmanship in the history of technology: the Futurama Introduction model depicting the motorized city of 1960, displayed in General Motors’ “Highways and Horizons” pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. It was a motor age dream city, entirely dependent on automobiles but entirely free of accidents and congestion.

[Peter Norton, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, The MIT Press; January 21, 2011, p.5]

As we see, the automobile’s domination of the city street is complete.

When automobiles were new, many city people regarded them as a misuse of streets. By obstructing and endangering other street users of unquestioned legitimacy, cars violated prevailing notions of what a street is for. As long as defenders of automobiles fought their cause without questioning these notions, they were fighting on their adversaries’ terms. By the mid 1920s, however, motordom knew its enemy. From then on it expressly challenged old ideas about what streets are for. It proposed that street uses that impeded automobiles were misuses of the street. Even as accidents and congestion continued, restriction of cars was no longer the only way to fight them. After all, cars belonged in streets. At first this claim was a difficult one to make, but by 1930 motordom was on the road to success.

With newspaper reporting in thrall to automobile advertisers, it is unlikely that reform will come easily for Honolulu. Nor can the pedestrian find champions in either the city or the state departments of transportation, which repeatedly demonstrate their disdain for the walker or biker.

Perhaps the movement that succeeded in passing a “complete streets” city charter amendment could be the beginning of a revolution.  Assuming, that is, that we all begin to understand how thoroughly we’ve been conned.


I still have two "I Have Seen The Future" pins from Futurama- one from 1964 that I got and one from '39 my mother gave me. And I remember asking her where you were supposed to walk.

Normally I would agree with you but as a resident of Waikiki I really can't. I grew up in Waimanalo where you did play in the streets & whenever you saw a car coming you moved or you would get it when you got home because the driver would tell your Mom. You grew to learn to be responsible for yourself and respectful to others since you are sharing the same spot. Now living in Waikiki there is nothing like that both drivers & pedestrians are at fault. Everyday as a driver I see a person on their cell phone texting or talking step into the roadway, crosswalk or not, without looking both ways. Pedestrians will calmly, not hurrying, walk across the three lanes of the Ala Wai whether or not a car is coming. They can see the sidewalk & safety from their vantage point but I guess they decide its too far to walk. For those pedestrians that do obey the traffic signals about half of them stand in the road way & not on the sidewalk thus making it hard for a car who has the right of way to make a turn. Do they care? No. I walk daily in Waikiki with my dog & prior to entering any sidewalk I make sure to double & sometimes triple check for cars. Oftentimes walking along the Ala Wai I will see a car make a left turn from the middle lane because s/he did not realize the turn was coming up in time to get into the appropriate turning lane. Don't even get me started on the bicyclists who scream "Share the Road" and yet utilize the sidewalk. Do they move for pedestrians? No, the walker must move to accommodate the bike rider. Even for those that do use the bike lane do they stop at the red light like they are supposed to? For the majority no, in my experience, there have been some near misses as bicycles try to beat the light and they almost hit me or my dog. The real crime is not the law or the lack of enforcement but rather people with no respect for others and who refuse to take personal responsibility for themselves much less their actions.

I had a meeting on King Street yesterday, only to realize I parked on the opposite side from where my meeting was at. I looked to the left, looked to the right, and saw that the nearest crosswalks on either side were several blocks away. I had no choice but to jaywalk.

After my meeting ended, I was dreading the trip back to my car, but I spotted one of those crosswalks with no traffic light. Luckily, there was another woman there who laughed and said she does this all the time, and so we began crossing. Tires were screeching and my life was flashing before my eyes LOL.

But seriously, maybe we wouldn't jaywalk so much if we put up some more traffic lights!!

You are braver than I. I'm glad that you survived. Please be careful!

I've written about an older man in a crosswalk ahead of me who dropped something -- his eyeglass case, I think, and the panic he experienced while deciding whether to slowly bend down and pick it up, risking not being able to get across before the light changed, so let it stay there and lose it. I was moving to pick it up, but he did pick it up and did make it across.

I can't imagine that happening to someone in one of those crosswalks with no traffic light.

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