Posted on July 18, 2022

Racial Justice, Pedestrian Safety Fuel Jaywalking Debate

Jenni Bergal, Pew, July 14, 2022

For nearly a century, jaywalking has been illegal in most states and localities. But several recent reports have shown that police in some areas disproportionately ticket people of color. And critics say citing people for crossing at the wrong place just gives them another reason to drive instead of walk.

“It doesn’t really improve safety. It’s part of a culture of blaming pedestrians,” said Mike McGinn, executive director of America Walks, a nonprofit pedestrian advocacy group. “And it’s used to make pretextual police stops that impinge on the ability of people to move about without being stopped, particularly in Black and brown communities.”

In the past two years, a few states have moved away from strict enforcement of jaywalking laws, making it easier for pedestrians to cross the street outside of a crosswalk or against a traffic signal without getting cited by police.

Virginia passed a law that prohibits officers from stopping a pedestrian just for jaywalking. Nevada no longer considers it a misdemeanor. And in California, the state Assembly approved a bill in May that would allow people to cross outside of an intersection when it’s safe to do so. The measure is now in the state Senate.


But at a time when pedestrian deaths are on the rise, opponents of decriminalization say police should be able to issue citations to discourage people from putting their lives in danger.

An estimated 7,485 pedestrians in the U.S. were struck and killed by motorists in 2021—the largest number in four decades, according to an analysis by the Governors Highway Safety Association, a nonprofit that represents state highway safety offices. The group found that pedestrian deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic had spiked significantly, as speeding and impaired and distracted driving proliferated.


Black, Hispanic and low-income pedestrians are more likely to be killed while walking. Between 2016 and 2020, Black pedestrians were struck and killed at twice the rate of non-Hispanic White people, according to a 2022 report by Smart Growth America, a nonprofit coalition of advocacy groups headquartered in Washington, D.C. The fatality rate in the nation’s lowest-income neighborhoods was nearly twice that of middle-income census tracts and more than three times that of higher-income areas, the report found.


While decriminalizing jaywalking may be controversial, in California the concept has gotten a lot of support from lawmakers.

Last year, both legislative chambers passed a measure that would have repealed the state’s jaywalking laws. But Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed it, saying he had concerns about safety. Newsom cited state data that showed that about 30% of traffic deaths in the state in the past five years were pedestrian fatalities and that 63% of those were the result of pedestrians “taking actions against traffic controls or safety laws.”

This year, Democratic Assembly Member Phil Ting, the original bill’s sponsor, refiled a version of it, but worked with Newsom’s administration to make modifications. Rather than striking the jaywalking law, the measure passed by the Assembly this spring—dubbed the Freedom to Walk Act—would prohibit police from citing pedestrians for jaywalking if the road is clear and it is safe to cross.


Ting said streets are unsafe for pedestrians because of speeding and distracted driving, not jaywalking. He called decriminalizing jaywalking a matter of racial justice.


Ting points to an analysis of state data by the California Bicycle Coalition, which found that from 2018 to 2020, police in some California cities were nearly four and a half times more likely to stop Black pedestrians for jaywalking than White ones.

In New York City, an analysis of 2019 data by StreetsBlog found that Black and Hispanic people were getting about 90% of the tickets for “illegal or unsafe” crossing, even though they represented only 55% of the city’s population.

And a 2017 investigation by ProPublica and the Florida Times-Union found that over a five-year period, Black people in Jacksonville were nearly three times as likely as White people to be ticketed for a pedestrian violation.