People in Seattle almost never jaywalk. In fact, the population’s firm adherence to the red crosswalk hand is the stuff of legends. For many, including myself, it’s one of the first things that stands out during an initial visit to the city. Rain or shine, heavy traffic or completely empty roadway, almost everyone simply waits for the crosswalk signal.
I vowed when I came here that I would never become one of the non-jaywalking Seattleites. I’ve jaywalked my whole life and I’m not gonna stop now, I said to myself.
Within a week, I caught myself waiting for the WALK signal before crossing a street that did not have an oncoming car in sight. The anti-jaywalking culture had ensnared me.
KPLU took up this law-abiding cultural phenomenon in a recent story titled “I wonder why Seattleites don’t jaywalk?” Listen online.
Whatever the reason for such rampant regard for the law, it seems even more strange that Seattle Police continue to ticket jaywalkers at such a high rate.
As we noted a few weeks ago, a person driving failing to yield to someone walking is the number one cause of such collisions. Jaywalking is hardly a blip comparatively.
Yet Seattle Police are still far more likely to ticket people for jaywalking. If the goal of traffic policing is to reduce the number of people injured on our city’s streets, wouldn’t it make sense to focus on the leading cause of collisions?
A potential counter-argument might be that the rampant ticketing of jaywalking is a factor in our city’s culture of waiting for the WALK signal. But if that is the case, then would it not also apply that rampant ticketing of people driving for failing to yield would be a factor in creating a culture of stopping at crosswalks and being cautious when making right turns (two common “failure to yield” scenarios)?
But there must be something more at work than a simple fear of a jaywalking ticket. I can say that a ticket never crossed my mind as I was quickly consumed by the law-abiding culture.
The confusing nature of the streets was certainly one big factor. When you regularly have intersections with five or six streets coming at various angles, it becomes very hard to anticipate who is going to get a green light next. There are more blind corners with cars flying around them unexpectedly. Where jaywalking in many cities with clear, predictable street grids is almost second-nature (and nearly everyone does it in some places), jaywalking in Seattle is stressful.
The power of this uncertainty comes up in the KPLU program. John Morgan, who heads up the Seattle Pedestrian Advisory Board, thinks people would be safer if there were fewer jaywalking laws. In the face of uncertainty, people behave with caution. In Seattle, people wait for crosswalk lights. In other parts of the world, the same principle works to keep people driving alert and cautious.
Morgan says in places where jaywalking is allowed the roads are safer for walkers.
“You create more uncertainty. People drive more slowly. And when people are paying attention and communicating, everyone ends up being more safe.”
As long as it’s the law, police officer Abraham says citing jaywalkers will continue to be a top priority.
“Jaywalking can cost your life; smoking marijuana can just give you a buzz. So, I’ll be after a jaywalker rather than someone with a joint. Unless that person starts to jaywalk, then they’ll really be in trouble.”
What do you think contributes to a culture of following traffic laws? How can we, as a city, encourage cultural changes to prevent the actions that cause senseless injury and death?