I’ll come clean with you: I’m a law breaker, and I break it regularly.
In the last offense I remember (honestly, I do it so often I can’t recall every instance), I walked to buy something from a store down the street from my home. Then I hit a snag: I’m mid-block, the store is directly across the street, but I would have to walk a few minutes in each direction to get to a crosswalk.
So I did what many of us do on a regular basis: I waited a moment for a break in car traffic and stepped out into the street to take the more convenient route.
That’s right: I jaywalked. Then, after making my purchase, I returned to the scene of the crime and did it again to get back home, Judas Priest rocking in my head.
Crossing a street outside a marked crosswalk, commonly referred to as jaywalking, is prevalent and illegal.
But advocates for safer streets and social justice say police departments often don’t enforce jaywalking laws fairly. That’s supported by data reporting that shows police in many U.S. cities — including Los Angeles — disproportionately stop and cite Black pedestrians for jaywalking.
In L.A., nearly a third of pedestrians issued jaywalking tickets over the last decade were Black — in a city with a 9% Black population.
A bill passed this week by the California legislature aims to reduce those inequities and largely decriminalize jaywalking by allowing pedestrians more leeway to cross the road.
Assembly Bill 1238, dubbed the Freedom To Walk Act, would do that by amending or eliminating parts of the California Vehicle Code. These are the major changes the bill would make:
- Prohibit fines for crossing a street outside of a crosswalk when there is no “immediate hazard”
- Remove the requirement that pedestrians obey traffic signals, meaning pedestrians are allowed to cross on a yellow or red light when safe (aka there’s no “immediate hazard”)
- Repeal existing law specifying what side of the street pedestrians must walk on when no sidewalks exist
- Prevent local governments from adopting traffic ordinances that negate the new state rules
So what counts as an “immediate hazard?” The bill adds this definition to the vehicle code:
“...an immediate hazard exists if the approaching vehicle is so near or is approaching so fast that a reasonably careful person would realize that there is a danger of collision.”
The Thinking Behind The Bill
State Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) authored the bill. One of its key goals, according to a press release: “Preventing police from using jaywalking as a pretext to stop Black and Brown people, especially since under-resourced neighborhoods often lack adequate crossing infrastructure.”
“What we really want to do is decriminalize walking in California… [and] eliminate the arbitrary enforcement when people are just simply crossing the street in a safe manner,” Ting said.
The assemblymember noted that pedestrians who make blatantly dangerous moves into roadways would still be subject to enforcement.
Ting also argued the cost of a jaywalking citation “becomes a disincentive to walk,” especially for low-income Californians.
The base fine for jaywalking in California is $25. But then 10 additional penalties and surcharges get tacked on to that fine, bringing a basic jaywalking ticket to just shy of $200.
For many low-income and/or unhoused residents, that’s a major financial burden that can grow if not paid on time.
The bill was approved by the state Assembly in June, then passed on the Senate floor Sept. 8 in a 22-8 vote. It’s returning to the Assembly for concurrence, then goes to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. If he signs it, the new law would take effect Jan. 1, 2022.
The bill would remain in effect until Jan. 1 2029, giving local authorities and legislators several years to analyze how the changes affect public safety in communities across the state.
Tamika Butler, a social justice advocate and private consultant focused on transportation equity policy, sees AB 1238 as a way to redefine the “hierarchy on the streets… and really uplift people who are walking, who are rolling.” She also said jaywalking enforcement leads to “unnecessary interactions with law enforcement that for us can be fatal.”
Butler mentioned Kurt Reinhold, an unhoused Black man who was shot and killed by Orange County deputies in San Clemente last September. Dashcam footage revealed the deputies initially debated if they should stop Reinhold for jaywalking, then attempted to do so before getting in a physical altercation with the 42-year-old father and fatally shooting him.
“We have to ask why people are walking if we're going to make it a crime,” Butler said. “If it’s because we don't have the infrastructure to get people where they need to go, then the reality is it is a matter of public safety to decriminalize it and to instead invest money in that infrastructure.”
Inequitable Enforcement and Inequitable Streets
We analyzed LAPD citation data from 2010 to 2020, categorized by ethnicity. It showed that 31.5% of the jaywalking tickets issued in that time were to Black pedestrians. White, Latino or Hispanic and Asian pedestrians were all cited at lower rates when compared to their population shares in L.A.
Pedestrians who identified as Indigenous, Native Hawaiian, Native Alaskan or Pacific Islander were issued 25 tickets in total across those 11 years, representing 0.07% of citations. Combined, those communities represent about 0.9% of the city’s population.
Jaywalking citations have fallen sharply over the past decade, from 5,885 in 2010 down to 1,180 in 2019 — a drop of about 80%.
AB 1238 has wide support from community organizations across the state; nearly 90 advocacy groups for street safety, civil rights, racial equity, climate issues and immigration have signed on in favor of the new bill.
John Yi is the executive director of Los Angeles Walks, which co-sponsored the bill. He believes that safer streets can be achieved through more equitable design — and that if people are regularly jaywalking to cross a roadway, that speaks more to a lack of crosswalks than to pedestrians’ behavior.
“If we're not building our communities for pedestrians, for walkability, then we shouldn't penalize our community members for navigating the best they can,” he said.
But adding crosswalks and other street upgrades takes a notoriously long time in L.A. And by design — or a lack thereof — communities of color are lacking most in safety infrastructure, and also experiencing the most traffic violence. City officials have acknowledged these inequities and announced plans to correct them, but that won’t happen overnight.
“The way the system is built, basic safety and infrastructure is incredibly difficult to come by,” Yi said. “This law is sort of alleviating some of that pressure that we put on pedestrians in the streetscape.”
Jaywalking Laws: Made Possible By The Auto Industry
The historical context behind jaywalking laws is worth noting. It goes back to the early days of the automobile, when drivers were killing tens of thousands of people every year — many of them children.
Peter Norton, a history professor at the University of Virginia and author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City has studied how auto travel changed U.S. cities. Our modern “jaywalking” laws didn’t originate from concerned parents or public officials, he explained, but from car companies and their local auto clubs. It was part of a calculated effort to shift the blame for traffic deaths away from drivers to pedestrians, clear the roads for cars and boost vehicle sales. Spoiler: It worked.
A century later, jaywalking laws remain virtually unchanged from the rules adopted by local and state governments in the 1920s — and the early auto industry was instrumental in making that happen.
First, there’s the word jaywalking itself, which is rooted in a disparaging term from the early 1900s.
“‘Jay’ was a Midwestern term meaning an empty-headed idiot from the country — a rube,” Norton said.
Car companies and auto clubs took up the term as a way to shame the people who were being struck and killed, rather than the drivers who hit them. Los Angeles became “the crucial city in this evolution” in the early 1920s, he said. The Automobile Club of Southern California was even posting its own “no jaywalking” signs on public streets.
Then in 1925, the Pedestrian Protection and Regulation Ordinance took effect in L.A. Norton noted that it was drafted by a Harvard academic — who was being generously funded by the automaker Studebaker.
“[Jaywalking] reflects the agenda of a social group with a business interest in redefining what streets are for,” Norton said. “It comes from an attempt to take a practice that was considered absolutely normal and necessary and everyday by almost everybody and turn it into a marginalized, restricted, limited practice that — if you didn't do it exactly the right way — could get you a ticket, or worse.”
The new local traffic law was the first in the nation “that actually changed pedestrians’ behavior,” he said, and became the model for other U.S. cities.
“When you go to Random City, U.S.A. and look at its traffic ordinance — or if you look at the state traffic ordinances that often supersede the local ones — what you're looking at almost always is a descendant of that 1925 Los Angeles traffic ordinance,” he said.
‘Those Laws And That Strategy Don't Work’
A few law enforcement associations are opposed to the Freedom To Walk Act, arguing that allowing people to cross streets outside crosswalks and disregard traffic signals will lead to more pedestrian deaths.
But many traffic experts and advocates argue that law enforcement’s current approach to pedestrian safety is misguided and has failed to reduce the death toll on city streets (who remembers the LAPD’s reflective vests giveaway?).
Seleta Reynolds, general manager of L.A.’s Department of Transportation, said targeting people for walking outside of crosswalks and other minor traffic infractions “can confuse and obscure the real issues and end up with misdirected enforcement.”
What leads somebody to jaywalk is usually related to a whole host of things that is about how we design the streets and how our land uses lay out and how we've ended up with such a car-focused public realm.
So what are the real issues? Dangerous behavior by drivers, Reynolds said — especially speeding and red-light running.
“If I could just say ‘just enforce two things,’ it would be those two things,” she said. “We've had jaywalking laws on the books for a long time, we've had enforcement activities throughout the entire state of California and the U.S., jaywalking stings and all kinds of other... focused enforcement around jaywalking that have not made a bit of difference in the pedestrian fatality rates that we see.”
Approximately 1,157 people walking in L.A. were killed by drivers between 2010 and 2020. Thousands more were seriously injured in that time period.
A recent study from UCLA found that Black residents are disproportionately hurt and killed in traffic crashes. Over five years of study, the data showed that one in every four people killed in a crash was either a Black or Latino pedestrian.
“It's very clear from the facts on the ground that those laws and that strategy don't work,” Reynolds said. “So we should revisit them and we should do so in a way with urgency.”
I reached out to the LAPD for comment on its approach to pedestrian safety and jaywalking enforcement, as well as its stance on AB 1238, but was told the department “will not be able to accommodate your request.”
The push to decriminalize jaywalking comes as many U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, are rethinking the roles of armed law enforcement in traffic safety.
A growing coalition of transportation experts, community groups and local leaders are calling for reduced investment in police-based enforcement in favor of alternative methods, including lowering speed limits, redesigning streets to better protect pedestrians and cyclists, and installing automated speed cameras to cite dangerous drivers.
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