"the Bostonian ... has reduced 'a pedestrian who crosses streets in disregard of traffic signals' to the compact 'jaywalking.'" June 1917 Harper's Bazaar Magazine

How appropriate that the term would be coined in the town that surely invented the practice, Boston, where three pedestrians are injured everyday. Only New York City, for obvious reasons, has a greater proportion of pedestrian related traffic deaths than our fair city. We not only invented the word, but we are such exquisite practitioners that just living here turns you into a connoisseur. There are a myriad of reasons why people jaywalk, however, at the end of the day, you need to remember that the word 'jay' was actually slang for stupid in the teens. As a matter of fact, every day I see the depths to which we sometimes sink in this town.

I live in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood of Boston, near Jamaica Pond a large glacial pond surrounded by walking and cycling paths. The pond is separated from the neighborhood by the Jamaicaway, an extremely busy parkway, and near where I live, that wonderful deathsport arena that we locally call a rotary and other more sensible places refer to as a traffic circle. My morning drive takes me to a side street that opens on the Jamaicaway at the base of that rotary. As I wait to turn onto the traffic, every day I see some or all the following extreme jaywalkers trying to cross four lanes of traffic whizzing in and out of the rotary, even though there is a traffic light and a pedestrian crossing not 100 yards away:

  • Joggers - This is the one that baffles me the most. Now, you are out to exercise, right? So what is the issue with walking the extra hundred yards?
  • Mothers with carriages - I have a son, I have no idea how someone can be so abysmally without a clue as to expose a child to that danger.
  • The elderly - Many local senior citizens take their morning constitutional in their Mephistos around the pond. I have seen grandmothers squinting into the traffic and walking so slowly that they had to stop on the double yellow line because they could not make it across in one go. Again, if moving them bones is the point...
  • Cyclists - I am a cyclist and I behave on my bike as if I was driving a car (within reason of course). These folks are going across traffic and a double yellow line wobbling on their faux mountain bikes, without a helmet. Not that the helmet would help as they sail over the car that just kicked the bike out from under them.
  • The homeless man with the shopping cart - Ah, finally, someone I can understand, he is demented, he talks to the pigeons, he is crazy, he does not know that 4,000 lbs of SUV would surely turn him into tomato surprise all over the roadway.

Remember now, this is Boston, where cars barely stop for pedestrians at zebra crossings, and the city motto could be 'I yield for no man'. There is real danger here and the statistics bear it out. A 1999 study conducted by the Boston Public Health Commission came up with some obvious but nonetheless sobering conclusions:

  • Only 12% of pedestrians cross at the crosswalk with the "Walk" signal.
  • 1/3 of pedestrians jaywalk (defined as crossing at least 5 feet from crosswalk).
  • While nearly 95% of drivers yield to pedestrians when pedestrians have the right of way, only 50% of drivers yield to pedestrians who cross against the light. Even fewer slow down for jaywalkers.
  • At 5 of the 12 sites where the observational studies were conducted, at least 20% of drivers were speeding.
  • Between 1998 and 1999, only 5% of fatally injured pedestrians were at crosswalks.

Interestingly enough, Massachusetts ranked 37th in the nation in pedestrian fatalities in 1994 when New Mexico ranked first but there are issues with pedestrians in rural states that have nothing to do with jaywalking. Pedestrian incidents requiring Boston EMS transport have also decreased from a high of 1,187 in 1996 to 807 in 2003 which the city attributes to a pedestrian safety campaign called Walk this way. I just think the weak have been culled from the herd.

You may have also guessed that I have a personal ax to grind over this whole thing and you would be right. Ten years ago my grandmother crossed a busy six lane intersection against the light. A misguided truck driver stopped for her but as she went on to cross the next lane, a lane that she could not see, she was hit by a second truck. She died of her injuries at the hospital but before she was taken away by the EMTs, she made it a point to tell the driver of the truck that hit her that it was not his fault. Just try to imagine how stupid she felt.

A Review of Pedestrian Safety Research in the United States and Abroad, Bureau of Transportation Statistics publication no. FHWA-RD-03-042, January 2004,http://ntl.bts.gov/lib/24000/24700/24702/Ped_Synthesis_Report.pdf,9/14/2004
Pedestrian Safety/Walk this way, http://www.bphc.org/programs/initiative.asp?b=1&d=5&p=2&i=2,9/14/2004

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