Confessions of a Jaywalker

I'm a habitual jaywalker. Sort of. Almost every day I cross a four-lane boulevard between two signalized intersections to reach the end of my block on the other side. The crosswalks at either end of this stretch of highway are exactly a quarter-mile away in either direction. To cross at a light rather than across the boulevard, I would have to walk another half mile.

I don't cross at either of the lights.

Where I cross used to have crosswalk and a crossing guard in early mornings and afternoons to guide students from my neighborhood to the elementary school a few blocks away on the opposite side. School attendance boundaries changed years ago. The crossing guard was reassigned. And the crosswalk was abandoned and paved over.

Strictly speaking, I'm not a jaywalker when I cross (very carefully). There is a "T" intersection there that serves as an outlet from the service road that parallels the highway. California Vehicle Code section 21590 creates a "presumptive" pedestrian right to cross at an intersection, even if a crosswalk hasn't been painted on the asphalt and there are no lights.

I cross at the "T." I have an imaginary crosswalk. I have the assurance of the Motor Vehicle Code. But I take nothing for granted.

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The code gives pedestrians in California a vastly ambiguous right-of-way in crossing streets. The code equitably says that drivers should take care in avoiding pedestrians wherever they might be and that pedestrians should watch out for themselves. However, there is catch in the code in section 21456 that has had walkers in Los Angeles fuming.

If there are pedestrian signals at the intersection, says section 21456, it's illegal for a walker to cross when the signal has a steady -- or flashing -- "Don't Walk" or "Wait" or the hand icon is showing. As too many pedestrians downtown have learned in recent weeks (and off and on since 2006), officers of the LAPD's Central Bureau will ticket walkers who step off the curb even if the "countdown clock" on newer signals shows they have plenty of time to cross.

One-step-off-the-curb jaywalking costs the scofflaw from $190 to $250 in fines. It might also earn him a bench warrant, if the ticket is left unpaid.

Advocates for pedestrian-oriented streets are skeptical of the LAPD's argument that each jaywalking ticket makes downtown streets that much safer for pedestrians, pointing out that the net effect of these recurring jaywalking crackdowns is to make traffic flow faster for drivers. They rightly point out the notion of jaywalking as a shameful -- and eventually illegal -- form of walking was invented by auto clubs and traffic planners in the early 1920s to ensure that drivers had precedence over pedestrians.

Despite the controversy, the LAPD will continue to issue tickets for not waiting for a fresh green light or walk signal, although waiting is what TV's Sheriff John and Engineer Bill taught me to do 60 years ago. I still wait, because the sheriff and the engineer were right. Although the streets, according to the Motor Vehicle Code, belong to both pedestrians and drivers, the effect of confusion over right-of-way is hardly symmetrical.

In 2013, there were 129 vehicle-on-pedestrian accidents downtown. The accidents resulted in four deaths. Just in January, according to the Los Angeles Downtown News, there were at least 18 collisions involving a car and a pedestrian.

None of the drivers was injured. It's not known how many of them were "jaydriving."

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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