Wednesday, April 25, 2012

"Jaywalking" is a matter of opinion. And clout.

At first, the burden of safe driving was on drivers. Then it became the duty of pedestrians to get out of the way. The auto industry was involved. Whaddayaknow.

Sarah Goodyear, writing in Atlantic Cities (and multiply retweeted here) finds this buried history in Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, a new book by Prof. Peter Norton out from MIT Press. She says Norton reports that, at the start of the internal combustion age, pedestrian fatalities were viewed as civic tragedies. Drivers who killed people with their cars were routinely charged with equivalents of manslaughter. Then the auto industry got involved in changing both public opinion and the traffic laws. The offense of "jaywalking" was invented right around that nasty year of 1920.

This week a bicycle rider in San Francisco may face felony charges for fatally hitting a pedestrian. Meanwhile, as Goodyear notes, a driver whose Jaguar flipped and hurt eight people in Manhattan won't be charged.

I have to add that "jaywalking" is among the most selectively charged offenses in cities. Everyone does it. People who look poor or disorderly get ticketed for it.

Once a homeless guy in Santa Monica told me he was standing on the curb, took one step off the curb with one foot, saw a policeman see him, lifted the foot gingerly back onto the curb, and got ticketed anyway. People do lie to their lawyers sometimes but I tended to believe him.

And maybe ten years ago I was defending a guy in San Francisco traffic court who had been charged with jaywalking. The charge was at a corner that happens to be where I went to law school. I've crossed the same street myself against the light any number of times. So, inevitably, have any number of other law students who became upstanding judges and prosecutors and corporate counsel and whathaveyou. Far as I know none of us who looked safely like students were ever cited.

There's nowhere to park near that corner. The cop said he had pulled over to cite the alleged jaywalker. So I asked where he parked. He grinned this smug little grin and said, "Right on the sidewalk." My client lost anyway.

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