A U.S. history of jaywalking

I’ve mentioned several times that jaywalking is a relatively new term in the American English lexicon and the result deliberate and concerted effort by the motor and oil industries to criminalize what was once considered a perfectly civilized practice: using the public street as a public thoroughfare available for all users.



BBC U.S. correspondent Aiden Lewis covers the U.S. history of jaywalking. American jaywalking laws sometimes baffle British visitors, because they live in a place where crossing the road is not a crime.

The idea of being fined for crossing the road at the wrong place can bemuse foreign visitors to the US, where the origins of so-called jaywalking lie in a propaganda campaign by the motor industry in the 1920s.

A key moment was a petition signed by 42,000 people in Cincinnati in 1923 to limit the speed of cars mechanically to 25mph. Though the petition failed, an alarmed auto industry scrambled to shift the blame for pedestrian casualties from drivers to walkers.

Local car firms got boy scouts to hand out cards to pedestrians explaining jaywalking. “These kids would be posted on sidewalks and when they saw someone starting to jaywalk they’d hand them one of these cards,” says[ history professor Peter] Norton. “It would tell them that it was dangerous and old fashioned and that it’s a new era and we can’t cross streets that way.”

There’s lots of good background in that article at BBC News Magazine: Jaywalking: How the car industry outlawed crossing the road. Keep this in mind the next time somebody blames the victim in a pedestrian hit-and-run.