Is It Wise for States to Decriminalize Jaywalking?

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As of March 1, if you live in Virginia, you will be able to cross the street anywhere—in the middle of a block, 100 yards from a crosswalk, as clumsily and unpredictably as you wish —without having to worry much about getting in trouble with the law. Jaywalking will be decriminalized throughout the state. Studies have shown that when a pedestrian does get a ticket for crossing in the wrong place, it is disproportionately likely to be a person of color, writes Governing columnist Alan Ehrenhalt. A 2019 New York City study found that Blacks and Hispanics had been getting 90 percent of the tickets for “illegal or unsafe” crossing, even though they comprised just a bare majority of the city’s population.

For decades, California was the national capital of jaywalking enforcement. It wasn’t unknown for Californians—or especially visitors ignorant of the law—to get a ticket just for taking a few steps into the street when the traffic light was red. California’s get-tough approach did seem to have an impact. Given that it is perhaps the nation’s most car-obsessed state, its figures for pedestrian injuries were low, but not any more. The number of pedestrian fatalities went up by 26 percent between 2014 and 2018. Jaywalking is not the most serious U.S. problem but it brings up a whole series of larger questions, Ehrenhalt says. What if the decriminalization of jaywalking leads increased numbers of people to be more nonchalant when they cross dangerous streets? More broadly, how much authority should governments have to protect people misbehaving in ways that are, in most cases, dangerous only to themselves?

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