The Monday Morning Commute: Ask traffic engineer Paul Basha: Why do we say ‘jaywalker’ to describe someone who walks across a street away from a signal or crosswalk?

Why do we say ‘jaywalker’ to describe someone who walks across a street away from a signal or crosswalk?

By Paul Basha, traffic engineer, Summit Land Management

During the time before cars, streets were for pedestrians. People riding horses or driving horsedrawn-carriages happily yielded for pedestrians. Non-pedestrians knew that pedestrians were the dominant travel mode and behaved accordingly. Cars began to be almost common in the 1910’s. Slowly, the streets became a bad place to walk. However, humans are very slow to change. Many people continued to walk in the streets, demanding that cars assume their rightful subordinate role, attempting to force cars to yield for them.

Clive Thompson, in an article in the December 2014 issue of Smithsonian, stated, “By 1925, auto accidents accounted for two-thirds of the entire death toll in cities with populations over 25,000”.

Pedestrians rebelled against cars, attempting to continue their three-millennia control of streets. According to Mr. Thompson, “The public regarded [drivers] as murderers. Walking in the streets? That was normal. Driving? Now that was aberrant – a crazy new form of selfish behavior”.

Again in the December 2014 Smithsonian article by Clive Thompson, “car sales … slumped by 12 percent between 1923 and 1924, after years of steady increase. Worse, anti-car legislation loomed … to limit how fast cars could go”.

Evidently, the Chicago Motor Club and other car aficionados developed the novel idea that the cars were fine, and that streets were for cars, not for humans traveling primitively without benefit of a car. In their view, pedestrians were the problem, and cars should not be required by law to condone disrespectful pedestrian behavior and drive at walking speeds.

Clive Thompson states that the Chicago Motor Club theory was, “If you got run over, it was your fault, not that of the motorist”. “[A] clever and witty public-relations campaign” was created with a “brilliant stratagem to popularize the term jaywalker”. “The term derived from ‘jay’ a derisive term for a country bumpkin. … [P]ro-car forces actively promoted [the word jaywalker], producing cards for Boy Scouts to hand out warning pedestrians to cross only at street corners. At a New York safety event, a man dressed like a hayseed was jokingly rear-ended over and over again by a Model T. In the 1922 Detroit safety week parade, the Packard Motor Car Company produced a huge tombstone float … blam[ing] the jaywalker, not the driver: ‘Erected to the Memory of Mr. J. Walker: He Stepped from the Curb Without Looking’.”

Curious about something traffic? Contact Paul Basha at (480) 505-3931 or 

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November 2020