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Are Anti-Jaywalking Laws Fascist?

Let me start by saying I don't know the answer to the question in the post title, but it is one of the hallmarks of a nanny state. Interestingly, though, while it's an east-coast, west-coast thing, it's the reverse of the usual stereotype, in which the westerners are anarchist cowboys, and the easterners civilized obeyers of the rules. Let me explain.

Growing up in southeast Michigan, I remember understanding the term "jaywalking," but only because someone explained it to me after I heard the term, not because I personally had any experience with it. Or rather, not because I had any personal experience with it in terms of it being illegal, and the law being enforced. I walked across a street when it seemed safe to do so, regardless of distance from lights, or their chromatic condition. And no one ever said boo about it, let alone the law enforcement authorities. I always considered the "Walk" and "Don't Walk" signs advisories, rather than commands (and I should add that I like the new ones that have a countdown clock telling you how many seconds until it's going to change, so you can judge whether you have time to start across). This was true in both Flint, the city in which I was raised, and Ann Arbor, where I spent three and a half years at school.

Being brought up in such an environment, I was surprised when I moved to southern California, and was informed by the locals that the gendarmes took illegal pedestrian street crossing seriously (i.e., they actually gave out tickets for it if, for instance, you crossed the street within some specified distance of a traffic signal, but didn't use the crosswalk). I heard many tales from the locals of such ticketry, and accordingly, I restrained my chicken-like urges to cross the road where and when I pleased (traffic permitting, of course). But like red arrows for left turns, when there was no oncoming traffic, I bridled at it, thinking it idiotic, and being treated like a child.

It got to the point that one of the reasons that I looked forward to business trips back east (generally, in my case, DC) was that I would have the freedom to cross the street if it was safe, anywhere and anywhen I wanted, without first having to check for the gestapo.

Anyway, Tigerhawk had a (to him) disturbing visit to the left coast (Seattle) and was shocked at the level of conformity and groupthink in this supposedly hip and counter-cultural town:

I walked down the hill and up again all before about 7 am. The streets were essentially empty of cars, so being an Easterner I skipped merrily along with little regard for the status of the pedestrian Walk/Don't Walk signs.

Then I noticed that the few other peds were just standing there waiting for the "Walk" signal to come on even when there was not a car in sight. Not surprisingly, they all looked at me like I was a middle-aged feminist at an Obama rally, so I also stopped violating the crosswalk lights.

When I landed I reported all of this to a friend of mine who claims to hate Seattle -- how can anybody actually hate Seattle? -- and she said "Of course, Seattle is basically just a suburb of Canada."

Like that explained it. Although it sort of does.

Anyway, other than in Washington, DC -- which back in the day raised money by assigning cops in unmarked clothes to write jay-walking tickets -- I've always thought of crosswalk signals as purely advisory. Not the command "Don't Walk," but more like "probably not a good idea to walk, because the cars have a green light." That is certainly the rule in any city in which I have lived or worked, including both New York and Chicago. In Seattle, though, pedestrians comply with crosswalk signals almost to the extent that motorists obey traffic lights. You know, they wait for the light to change even when there is neither a car nor a cop in sight. It is bizarre, and really quite un-American.

Well, the "suburb-of-Canada" thing doesn't explain the attitude in southern California. But it is un-American. A good friend of mine (who has been in LA for the past thirty years or so) lived in Germany for quite a few years back in the seventies, and acquired a wife and step-daughter there. He described the Germans (including his wife and step-daughter) as being hyperobediant to the law, including jaywalking laws, and they would never think of going without permission from the traffic signal, or outside of a cross-walk. At the time I attributed it to being German, but one of Tigerhawk's commenters notes that the Swiss are similar (though he didn't say whether it was the French, Italian or German Swiss).

Is such strict cultural regimentation in itself fascist? No. In fact, I think that in general, respect for the law is obviously a good thing. But sometimes, as Dickens put into the mouth of his character, "the law is a ass." Like the rules of bureaucracy, the laws are meant to protect people with poor judgment (and others who might be affected by dumb decisions) by constraining their behavior. Some foolish people might misjudge traffic, and unthinkingly cross the street against the light, or in the absence of a light, and get hit? Make it illegal. Problem solved. No judgment required. Just follow the rules.

In fact, in LA, I suspect that it has the unintended consequence of actually causing more accidents, exactly because it removes pressure for people to think before acting. Children are taught in school to always use a crosswalk, because in a crosswalk, you see, the pedestrian has the right of way, and cars aren't allowed to enter it while they're in it. And in fact, when you step into an unsignaled crosswalk in LA County, traffic will generally (note the word) stop for you. It's the law, and the culture.

Which can breed a dangerous complacency. That the crosswalk doesn't contain a force shield to actually prevent cars from crossing it while a pedestrian is in it, and that the law doesn't involve suspension of the very real physical law of momentum or decrease the stopping distance of trucks, isn't taught, apparently. I haven't seen the statistics, but I'll bet that a lot more people (particularly California natives) are injured and killed in crosswalks, where they have a false sense of safety, than in the "unsafe" areas where they actually have to look both ways and think before crossing the highway. Particularly because they not only have to look out for traffic, but police with nothing better to do than hand out jaywalking tickets.

Too much unthinking respect for the law isn't fascistic per se, but it provides a fertile breeding ground for someone with charisma who comes along with grand ideas for new laws which, of course, because they are laws, must be obeyed. Thus when it became the law for Germans to turn in the Jews, what choice did they have? It wasn't after all, their decision. It was the law.

But of course, while LA and Seattle are the west (about as far as you can go west in the lower forty eight and remain above water), they're not the wild west. They're in fact (with San Francisco) the bluest of the blue states, chock full of so-called "progressives." So it's not surprising at all, per Jonah's thesis, that they are much more culturally attuned to obeying laws, even senseless ones, and all in favor of more. For the children.

OK, now for the challenging part. How to fit the traffic anarchists of New York City (cue Dustin Hoffman, "I'm walking here!") into the thesis?


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Dennis Ray Wingo wrote:


I have had my own experience with red light crossing fascism in Southern California.

When I first moved there in 1980 I lived in Van Nuys near the corner of Sepulveda and Saticoy. One morning at about 6:45 am (sunday morning) without a car in sight, except for a cop car at almost the limit of sight, I crossed against a light returning from picking up a Sunday morning paper. I was up the street about to turn into my apartment complex when the cop car swung in and two cops got out asking me for my ID.

Since this was at 6:45 on a sunday morning in the year 1980 I did not have my ID on me. So the two cops followed me to my apartment, came into my apartment with me, and waited until I got my ID. Well they then gave me a figging ticket for jaywalking. At this time I was getting ready to move back east and so I just forgot about a stupid jaywaking ticket.

Well about a year later I moved back to Southern California and was living about 30 miles away in Thousand Oaks. There was a traffic accident where a motorcycle ran under my car and there was a police report. A couple of days later I am at work and get a call to come to the reception desk. Two cops are there and ask to speak to me outside. Being young and stupid and not realizing that I did not have to go outside with them, I went and I was immediately arrested, handcuffed, and put into the back of the police car.

Being the dumb kid from Alabama I was at first shocked, then infuriated by this stupid crap and cussed the cops all the way back to the station, questioning their manhood and the reasoning behind spending scarce police resources on such a stupid thing. After getting bailed out and spending about $200 dollars, I was again a free person.

It ingrained in me a disdain and hatred of LA cops and a few years later it was this same group of idiots from the same station that beat up Rodney King.

When I am in Southern California I watch for the lights now when I am crossing a street.

mz wrote:

I think the biggest difference is that you're less likely to kill someone if you hit them when you're a pedestrian compared to when you drive a car. Hence much stricter rules make sense for cars. It makes sense at least to me personally and I adhere to it as a driver: I don't drive against a red light or red turn sign even if there were no people or other cars around (If it's an emergency, then it's another thing...).

We have ticketing for red light walking too but I think I've only heard rumors of someone getting one in the eighties.

R wrote:
How to fit the traffic anarchists of New York City (cue Dustin Hoffman, "I'm walking here!") into the thesis?
Not any sort of challenge. The Hoffman quote is a clew, as they say.

New Yorkers are the arbiters. They decree what The Rules are, and the yokels (=non-New-Yorkers) absolutely must follow them on pain of pain, but they themselves are not in any way bound. They make the rules. They don't obey them; that's for rubes.


Bruce B. wrote:

A few years ago there was a Seattle comedy troupe with a TV show called "Almost Live". It consisted of some stand-up comedy, and a lot of taped clips. One of them was "The Fugitive in Seattle".

Dr. Richard Kimball comes to Seattle in pursuit of the One-armed Man. He jaywalks, and a cop draws his pistol. Dr. Kimball says "I didn't kill my wife!" The cop replies "I don't care! Don't jaywalk!"

A more effective sign was put up in a store in the University District. It read: "If you jaywalk, you're in play!" There was no jaywalking at that corner of the U District.

heather wrote:

I live in Canada and know all about waiting for the light to turn green so I can walk across the street - at 12 midnight with no car in sight. The RCMP's main job is to catch cars speeding (they can't seem to catch murderers or thieves, though).

Which made Scotland such a surprise: I only saw policemen once, and they weren't worried about speeding cars. And lemme tell you, cars really move in that country of narrow roads; very terrifying to this Canadian. My cousin checked, though, and found that Scotland's accident rate is about the same as Canada's.

Canada is truly a country full of soft fascists. They see this stance as morally virtuous, a way of being superior to you gun-totin' warmongers south of the border.

Mike G in Corvallis wrote:

I grew up in L.A. and San Diego, and I sometimes jaywalk but I never cross against the light. I think it may have more to do with history, civic culture, and upbringing than anything else. Here's my hypothesis:

Kids learn the essentials of survival from their parents. In Southern California, where the civic culture came into being with (and as a result of) the automobile, parents have taught their three-year-olds "Don't you dare cross the street without an adult!" and then later later "Always cross at the corner, in the crosswalk, with the light!" as part of basic survival; this has gone on for as long as their city or town has existed as anything other than a land developer's dream. And we kids had enough real-life examples of what could happen if we disobeyed to drive the message home.

Back East the roads came first. In horse-and-buggy days, crossing the street wasn't a big deal -- it was easy to see/hear and avoid a horse. (From what photographs and accounts I've seen, roads Back East didn't even need or use stop signs or rules like "keep to the right" until at least a decade after cars came along.) So parents Back East don't ingrain street-crossing survival rules into their kids reflexes, because their parents never did, because it was never an important part of civic culture.

We have other reflexes and rules that people Back East don't have, too. In Southern California, pedestrians always have the right of way. Always. (Think of that as the other half of the social compact under which pedestrians always cross with the light.) And the whole concept of "gridlock" was alien to us for a long time until enough people from the East Coast came out and mucked things up -- it only takes one driver willing to stop in an intersection to screw things up for everyone. Why did it take so long for the rest of the country to realize that it might be OK to turn right on a red light after stopping to make sure the road is clear? And don't get me started about Boston drivers ...

Paul Milenkovic wrote:

I think the deal behind West Coast enforcement of jaywalking ordinances and the East Coast laugh-in-your-face attitude that pedestrians can do any wrong comes down to this.

Now obviously a car can be a very dangerous object used in the wrong way, and the fundamental law is that a motorist must never run anyone over, even if the pedestrian is in the wrong.

But the East Coast ethic, as I see it is that pedestrians will swarm the streets if there are enough of them, and it is tough for any motorist caught behind those swarms, but motorists, on the other hand, will play chicken with peds thinking about entering crosswalks and claim the right of way given a chance.

The East Coast ethic is the Sergeant Friday just-the-facts-maam version of law abiding. At least this used to be the case in LA when pedestrians were rare, but a motorist will stop at a crosswalk if there is even a hint that a pedestrian wants to cross. The flip side of this automotive gallantry that is unheard of back East is that pedestrians just plain don't jay walk.

So it is a social-contract thing. In the East you have a kind of every man for himself arrangement, and in the West, you have motorists extending every grant or right of way and courtesy to pedestrians combined with pedestrians assidously taking only the legal right of way granted to them.

Here in Madison, the cops started a crackdown on motorists not honoring right-of-way to pedestrian crosswalks, and when it was announced in the paper they were handing out tickets, I almost got rear-ended and sure got honked and cussed out a couple times for trying to do the California thing in my car. But it occurred to me, shouldn't the cops also hand out tickets for jay walking if they are handing out tickets to the motorists? I am not trying to be snarky that if motorists get tickets peds deserve them too. I am just appealing to a reciprocal social contract to effect the smooth flow of pedestrian and motor traffic. Otherwise our rampant jaywalking UW students will claim the roads and no cars will get through.

It has been nearly 30 years that I knew someone who go a jaywalking ticket in Seattle and was mad as a hornet about the whole thing. The best (or worst) part depending on your point of view is that she had to go to "Pedestrian School." California has "Traffic School" for getting tickets off you driving record, and Seattle, apparently had "Pedestrian School" for the jaywalkers. So my friend goes to Pedestrian School, which is run by a cop, who tells everyone that they are not going to get run over jaywalking, because that is when you are looking both ways for cops, but when crossing with the light, when you are not on guard.

David Rogers wrote:

Like you, I had long considered Walk/Don't Walk lights to advisory. I suppose I must have known there was a theoretical possibility of a ticket behind them, but I never knew anyone who actually got a ticket for crossing against the light. The worst I ever heard of was a scolding from a school crossing guard.

Then I went to the University of Southern California.

Apparently, there is a special Don't Walk SWAT team set up by the LAPD, because, at the end of my first week there, not only had I gotten a ticket (let me tell ya, I was literally stunned silent), but half the people I knew had gotten tickets.

I talked to the R.A., and he assured me that LAPD always did this the first few weeks of the semester.

Welcome to L.A.!

Mike G in Corvallis wrote:

After reading Mr. Wingo's tale of woe, it occurred to me that he might profit from taking the advice in this video.

Dennis Ray Wingo wrote:

That was funny. Fortunately my last tangling with the law like that was a very long time ago.

Doc (in China) wrote:

As mentioned, it's a social contract thing, and part of it is to keep traffic moving. The lights are often timed, and if you're driving the right speed, you don't have to stop every light... unless some jackass is strolling across the street or goes rolling around the corner on a red light, because there "weren't any cars".

In the Bay Area, there is no social contract. Nobody pays any attention to the lights.

My great-grandmother used to talk about when they first replaced traffic cops with traffic lights. Everybody wondered why somebody would obey without a cop there. In China, it's still that way. Personal vehicles are a new phenomenon, and traffic is total anarchy. The fences along the roads are there to keep people from crossing AND to keep people from driving on the sidewalk. They work well for the latter, but not so well for pedestrians.

As a pedestrian, you don't have right of way. You have to either dodge, or make sure there are enough of you to block the road. In Guangzhou, the drivers WILL run you down. You also have to watch out for bikes, motorized bikes, hand carts, pedicabs, etc. Not motorcycles or scooters, because they're outlawed in major urban areas (the central parts of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, though not the outer districts, or small cities with only a couple million people).

Paul Milenkovic wrote:

The students at MIT, as are the students at their West Coast rival Caltech, are known for their high-tech pranks.

But there is a legend that some wags at Harvard had a good laugh at the expense of MIT. Anyone here know about that broad crosswalk across "Mass Av" in front of the iconic MIT domed building? Story is that the Harvard students (maybe they were from the Lampoon) changed to pedestrian crossing signal to offer the choices "Walk/Chew."

terry mcgarry wrote:

paul m. comes closest to the explanation.
LA cops ruthlessly enforce the pedestrian right-of-way over motor vehicles. if a pedestrian has so much as one foot off the curb into the roadway--at any place, crosswalk or not-- all traffic is obligated by law to come to a halt. traffic must remain halted until the pedestrian is safely past.
these are serious tickets.
the result is that east-coast style pedestrians, wandering into traffic, can cause rear-enders, traffic jams and all kinds of other problems on a busy street.
to even things out, they go all gestapo on jaywalkers.
if drivers could simply try not to hit pedestrians, but keep moving and and leave the whole business up the ped's dodging skills, as in new york, that would be different.
let us remember that most of these tickets are purely for revenue anyway.

Nathan Lamm wrote:

Back when I was a student at Cardozo Law, Mayor Giuliani decided to start enforcing jaywalking laws in New York. Unfortunately for him, the very first person nailed with a ticket was a classmate of mine who worked in the Criminal Law Clinic run by Professor Barry Scheck (of O.J. defense fame). He jumped at the chance to defend her, the case was thrown out in about a second (mistake on the ticket or some such), and that ended the experiment.

Giuliani did a hell of a lot to improve this city, but he didn't really know when to stop.

Mike G in Corvallis wrote:

My great-grandmother used to talk about when they first replaced traffic cops with traffic lights. Everybody wondered why somebody would obey without a cop there.

I once read a magazine account of Arabs on a visit to America in the 1960s. They were incredulous when they visited a supermarket -- all that good stuff just sitting out, with nobody guarding it. The universal reaction was "How can they do that? Why don't people steal it?"

Social contract, folks. Same as with crossing on red lights.

Dedrich Knickerbocker II wrote:

I have lived in New York City, Manhattan, most of my life. In the 50s I played stick ball, roller hockey, and touch football on ordinary through streets. If cars came, even though we were teenagers, we could still summon enough common sense to pause and stand to one side. Now the volume of traffic everywhere in Manhattan makes these kind of street games a rare phenomenon. But there is still hardly a day I donít jaywalk or walk against the light after looking both ways. I know it is against the law but that makes me actually enjoy it as the only one of the millions of existing Rules, Regulations and Laws the nanny police state cannot enforce. Yet.

Anonymous wrote:

Dedrich Knickerbocker II wrote:

I have lived in New York City, Manhattan, most of my life. In the 50s I played stick ball, roller hockey, and touch football on ordinary through streets. If cars came, even though we were teenagers, we could still summon enough common sense to pause and stand to one side. Now the volume of traffic everywhere in Manhattan makes these kind of street games a rare phenomenon.

This supports my original theory. You can't speed on the "aboriginal" streets of Manhattan, so there was never any reason to change the rules that evolved with the growth of the city. In contrast, the western suburbs -- and L.A. is just about all suburbs -- are laid out differently; it's easy to go 35 or 40 mph (even though the speed limit is ostensibly 25). They started out dangerous to pedestrians, and they still are.

I obey laws that make sense, and West Coast traffic laws usually make sense. But don't get me started on metered freeway on-ramps and red light cameras! @#$% social engineering @#$&%!

George Skinner wrote:

Traffic rules, like most rules in society, are written for the part of the population that lacks common sense. They're particularly important for people who think they know more than they do. Think about it: how many times have you seen people take action without properly considering the circumstances? That red light in the middle of the night is a clear-cut case where personal judgement is superior to traffic rules, but the use of turn signals at a normally busy intersection isn't so clear cut. Much of the time we would find making the turn safe, but there's a pretty good chance that the signal was installed due to a rash of collisions at that location. Most laws would be unnecessary if people properly understood the first principles, but people are idiots.

Jardinero1 wrote:

Most accidents occur around traffic control devices. Rand touched on this. There has been an empirical study in Norway which demonstrated that traffic control devices can enhance safety, but too many traffic control devices actually create accidents; a sort of Laffer curve for road safety. Too many signs and signals create a complacency on the the part of drivers and pedestrians alike. They drive to the condition of the device and not to the condition of the road environment.

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on May 16, 2008 3:44 PM.

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