I first came across the term jaywalking in Bangkok and, being British, was quite thrown by it. Although any readers from the US will know that it refers to pedestrians crossing the road without using the pedestrian crossing, which is illegal in most cases across the pond, it’s a concept which we’re generally unfamiliar with in the rest of the world. Oxford Dictionaries define the word as:
‘Cross or walk in the street or road unlawfully or without regard for approaching traffic’
For example, it may be illegal to cross the road without using a nearby pedestrian crossing or even to cross the road at a pedestrian crossing when the lights are still red.
To those of us who are not used to such a regulation, it might seem a bit severe. After all, any pedestrian crossing the road in this way is surely going to stop, look and listen first and not just step out into oncoming traffic.
However, there is a reason behind it, which comes from its history.
Firstly, let’s dispel the false etymology. Some think that the origin of the word comes from the letter J which alludes to the shape of the route jaywalkers take when crossing the road. This isn’t the case; after all, the letters S or Z would give a more appropriate shape.
Jaywalking actually came about in the 1910s when cars and other vehicles had become a significant presence on the roads and there were many traffic accidents as a consequence. To encourage pedestrians to cross safely at the designated crossing the term jaywalking was created and strongly promoted.
The jay part came from a term common with city-dwellers used for people from the country, meaning ‘country bumpkin’, ‘hick’ or, generally, ‘idiot’. The idea was that city people knew how to cross the road in the right way, where as anyone who was crossing the road incorrectly must have been a simpleton from the countryside who didn’t know any better.
The word was not accepted easily and met with some criticism, such as in the following except from an article published in The Times in 1912:
‘More than a little sympathy will be felt for the correspondent who expressed resentment yesterday at the official application of the word “jaywalkers”—a truly shocking name and highly opprobrious—to people who cross the city streets in the middle of the blocks instead of at their ends.’
This was mostly because it was used in a derogatory way, almost as a racial slur, by those who were rich enough to afford a car against those who were too poor and had to walk.
Still, automobile companies at that time were under pressure to act on the number of traffic accidents involving pedestrians. So they shifted the blame from the drivers to the pedestrians and reinforced the idea of jaywalking in various anti-pedestrian campaigns. They emphasized the notion of the city being a place for cars and savvy city-dwellers, saying that pedestrians must accept the responsibility of their safety themselves.
Interestingly, any bans on jaywalking don’t have much effect in reality. In fact, pedestrians are 28% less likely to be hurt when jaywalking than when crossing at a pedestrian crossing which doesn’t have any additional signals such as traffic lights. Presumably, this is because jaywalkers are a lot more sensible than their name suggests as they are more careful when crossing the road than people who cross at crossings without paying attention. So in reality, a jaywalker is not a traffic simpleton but a much safer and wiser pedestrian than non-jaywalkers.