The other day, I approached a street corner in Park Slope at around the same time as a mother and her young child. I overheard the mother tell her son, “You see that hand? The hand means STOP, and the man means GO!” The child repeated after her, “The hand means STOP! And the man means GO!” I paused briefly next to them, looked up 4th Street to make sure there weren’t any cars coming, and crossed against the light. I heard the little boy say behind me, “She didn’t stop! She didn’t stop with the hand!” And I heard the mother reply, “She just broke the law. You should never do that.” I thought briefly about turning around and giving the mother and child the finger, but I didn’t. That kid will learn soon enough that his mom is a jerk. It’s not really my place to speed along that process.
But so, jaywalking. Jaywalking has been in the news a lot lately for a couple of reasons, the first being the increased number of pedestrian deaths due to traffic accidents this year, including that of a nine-year-old struck and killed as he crossed the street with his father in a crosswalk. One of Bill de Blasio’s first initiatives as mayor, in fact, has been to announce his plan for “Vision Zero” which aims to reduce the number of traffic deaths in New York to, well, zero in the coming year. One of the ways that de Blasio intends to implement that plan seems to be to crack down on jaywalking, which, as we all know, has long seemed the god-given right of all New York pedestrians. Predictably, this jay-walking crackdown has caused a bit of commotion, what with the local tabloids eagerly reporting on incidents like one this week, where an 84-year-old man was allegedly beaten after he failed to understand cops ordering him to cross with the light. And New York magazine reported today that there has definitely been an increase in jaywalking tickets this year, which seems like it wouldn’t be hard to do considering that only 630 jaywalking tickets issued in all of 2013, and that “many of us probably committed 630 individual acts of jaywalking all on our own last year.”
And yet, despite the city’s need for responsible pedestrians who respect the rules of the road and so don’t do things like (my own pet peeve) cross in the middle of the street while pushing a stroller ahead of them, as some kind of baby-filled buffer against oncoming traffic, I think this jaywalking crackdown is ridiculous. Sure, it’s important to teach young children (or their adult equivalents, people not from New York) what the hand and the man mean. But it’s even more important to teach them that their safety is actually independent from whatever is up on the sign in front of them, because—all too often in this city—motorists (and cyclists!) do not obey the rules of the road, and so it benefits pedestrians to go further than just looking for the hand or the man. After all, the majority of pedestrian-involved traffic accidents occur in crosswalks. It’s not enough to follow the law as written. You have to be better than that. So here, for all of us who need a reminder, is how to cross a street:
1) Look both ways. Even on one-way streets. Cyclists who salmon are a real, dangerous thing.
2) Make sure nothing is coming.
3) Cross the street.
4) Repeat as necessary.
Good luck out there. Even though, really, it’s not really about luck. It’s mostly about being smart. So be smart out there.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen