How the Auto Industry Made Jaywalking a Crime


These days, pedestrians have to use a crosswalk to cross the street and wait for the light to turn green. If they do not follow the rules of the road, they have to pay a hefty fine for jaywalking. But there were moves to decriminalize jaywalking, and the state of Virginia was the first to remove the fine associated with it.

The offense was supposedly meant to reduce accidents on the streets involving pedestrians. But some people say it was a product of an auto industry that wanted to blame these accidents on the pedestrians.

While this may be true, pedestrians can still get the services of a pedestrian accident lawyer in case he feels it was the fault of the motorist. An attorney can help pedestrians claim for benefits in case the accident was not entirely their fault.

But when it comes to jaywalking, there seems to be some truth in the story that auto manufacturers lobbied for the jaywalking law to prevent pedestrians from crossing the streets anywhere. This was confirmed in a book by Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia.

Streets as Public Space

Before automobiles became a popular mode of transportation, the city streets were public spaces that everyone can use. During this time, pedestrians can cross the street anywhere, even without looking around. The authorities set up the first crosswalks in the 1910s, but pedestrians ignored them.

The widespread use of cars in the 1920s saw an increase in accidents that resulted in pedestrian deaths. Most of these deaths were among children and the elderly who used to walk on the streets with little fear.

These deaths caused outrage, and people considered automobiles as playthings. People often referred to them as pleasure cars that were intruders on the streets. Newspapers covered these deaths and blamed the drivers. Cartoons even came out that demonized cars. In these cases, whenever someone died due to a collision, judges normally blame the cars. Drivers faced manslaughter charges even without taking into account the circumstances surrounding these accidents.

Cars and the Roads

The 1920s also saw anti-car activists lobbying for speed limits. There were even moves to equip vehicles with devices to slow down their speed depending on the limitations set by the city where the car owner lived.

In Cincinnati, residents sign a petition to conduct a ballot initiative to require cars to have a maximum speed limit of 25 miles per hour. Even as car manufacturers worked to stop the measure, they failed.

Due to this, auto groups across the country worked with auto manufacturers to redefine the street and limit the movement of pedestrians. It means to stop pedestrians from walking wherever they want to walk. This idea started in 1912 following the passing of an ordinance that required pedestrians to cross the street on crosswalks.

The 1920s saw these auto groups and manufacturers working hard to have similar laws passed across the country. These groups also attended meetings organized by then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to develop a traffic law that cities across the country can use. The product of these meetings was the 1928 Model Municipal Traffic Ordinance.

Shaming Jaywalkers


Despite the passage of the laws, auto groups still faced issues on enforcement since no one seemed to follow the laws. To deal with the situation, the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce created a free wire service where reporters can send details about an accident and receive a finished article the next day. The articles blamed the pedestrians for these accidents, which highlighted the importance of following the new laws.

The American Automobile Association also sponsored safety campaigns in schools and poster contests that focused on keeping people off the streets. The last part of the strategy was shaming pedestrians who did not follow the law. The auto campaigners pressured the police to shout or whistle at people who did not follow the law rather than just giving them a reprimand or fine. One safety campaign had actors dressed as clowns illegally cross the street to show the foolishness of the act.

Evolution of the Term Jaywalker

The term jaywalker was based on the word “jay,” which referred to a person who did not know how to act while in the city. These auto groups promoted using “jay walker” for someone who did not know how to safely walk in the city.

The term caught on until it became a single world. The authorities and safety organizations started using the term when making safety announcements.

Even as jaywalker evolved from a lobby of auto groups to protect themselves from lawsuits, it also helped keep pedestrians safe while using the roads.

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