Friday, July 13, 2012

When Did Jaywalking Become a Crime?

One of the biggest changes I noticed when I moved from Philadelphia to Berkeley last year was the legal relationship between drivers and pedestrians. Under California law, drivers must stop "for any pedestrian crossing at corners or other crosswalks, even if the crosswalk is in the middle of the block, at corners with or without traffic lights, whether or not the crosswalks are marked by painted lines." More important (since I'm sure Pennsylvania has something similar), Bay Area drivers adhere rigorously to the letter of the law and, when in doubt, defer to pedestrians. Pedestrians, secure in their rights, go on their way without looking up. A colleague illuminated this for me shortly after I moved. Seeing me hovering on a curb, waiting for a chance to dart across a busy street, she laughed and said, "This is California. Watch." I did, as she confidently walked in front of an oncoming car.

All this is by way of introducing a book review in the Atlantic that I recently stumbled upon and enjoyed. Titled "The Invention of Jaywalking," the review covers Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (MIT Press), by Peter Norton (University of Virginia).

Here's a taste:
[Norton] has done extensive research into how our view of streets was systematically and deliberately shifted by the automobile industry, as was the law itself.

“If you ask people today what a street is for, they will say cars,” says Norton. “That’s practically the opposite of what they would have said 100 years ago.”
And a bit more:
“If a child is struck and killed by a car in 2012, it is treated as a private loss, to be grieved privately by the family,” Norton says. “Before, this stuff was treated as a public loss – much like the death of soldiers.” Mayors dedicated monuments to the victims of traffic crimes, accompanied by marching bands and children dressed in white, carrying flowers.
“We’re talking less about laws than we are about norms,” says Norton. He cites a 1923 editorial from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch – a solidly mainstream institution, as he points out. The paper opined that even in the case of a child darting out into traffic, a driver who disclaimed responsibility was committing “the perjury of a murderer.”
The argument reminds me a bit of Barbara Welke's work on "owning hazard" (growing out of her research on the cowboy suit tragedies of the 1940s and 50s).

Read on here.

Hat tip: Bookforum