Who Invented Jaywalking?

“If you ask people today [in the U.S.] what a street is for, they will say cars,” writes Peter Norton, according to a recent Atlantic Cities article. “That’s practically (almost) the opposite of what they would have said 100 years ago.”

Norton reports that 100 years ago, streets in the U.S. were “vibrant (full of activity or energy) places with a multitude (large number) of users and uses.” The videos I included in an earlier blog post – The Big One – clearly show what he means. In those videos, the streets of San Francisco are filled with a constantly changing mixture of people, horses and riders, horses and wagons, trolleys (tram or streetcar), and a few cars.

When cars first appeared, they were considered “intruders (someone who enters an area illegally) and a menace (something dangerous).” And if someone was killed by a car, it was a public tragedy (sad event), not a private one. According to Norton, the death of someone killed by a car would be commemorated (to remember and show respect) with marching bands, flower-carrying children dressed in white, and even monuments (a structure to remind people of something or someone). If a car killed or injured (hurt) someone, most people assumed  (thought it was true even if they didn’t have proof) that the driver was responsible.

In 1923, people in Cincinnati, Ohio, became so angry about the danger of cars that they collected more than 7,000 signatures (written names) to support a law that would require a governor (a mechanical control) on every car so it couldn’t go more than 25 miles (40 km) per hour.

The American Automobile Association (AAA) – we often call it “triple A” – and other organizations began to teach children that streets were for cars, not children. They even provided money for safety patrols – older students who were trained to help younger children cross streets safely before and after school.

Car manufacturers were worried. They were afraid they wouldn’t sell many cars unless something changed. So they began to lobby (try to persuade someone in the government) lawmakers to write laws that restricted (limited) pedestrian (usually a person walking) use of streets so that only cars and other vehicles could use them. Lawmakers listened, and jaywalking became illegal (against the law) in the early 1920s.

Jaywalking is walking across a street or road where it is dangerous or illegal – Jeff talked about it several years ago in English Cafe 51. In the U.S., pedestrians may cross streets at places that are identified as cross-walks, a part of the road reserved (set aside) for pedestrians. Most cross-walks are at corners – with a signal light or stop sign – but they can also be located in the middle of the block (in between the corners). They are usually marked by white or yellow lines. If there is a signal light or stop sign, pedestrians must wait for the signal and for cars to stop before they walk across the cross-walk. While pedestrians are in a cross-walk, cars must wait until they cross the street.

If pedestrians cross a street at any other place, they are guilty of jaywalking and can be fined (pay money for doing something illegal) – in Los Angeles the fine is about $200. If they cause an accident, they may be legally responsible, even if they are injured.

If I asked someone where you live what a street is for, what would they tell me? Do you have jaywalking laws?

~ Warren Ediger – creator of Successful English.

 Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

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11 Responses to Who Invented Jaywalking?

  1. Dan says:


    You would simply get the same answer!

    Yes, you can be fined for crossing the street where you are not supposed to, but it is not applied.

    Today, with all these people walking around looking at their phones or wearing headphones, there is no need to be an expert to say that the number of accident are only going to increase.

    Hey, have you seen the other day that video of this poor girl that was walking on the sidewalk and fell in a hole because of the water eroded the ground beneath?
    It happend in China if I am remebering that well. Forunately, she did not hurt herself.


  2. John says:

    In Austria you won’t get finded for jaywalking, no sane person would jaywalk across a highly frequented road though.
    Already at elementary school kids are taught how to correctly jaywalk a street. You have to peek out between the parked cars, look to your left/right, and if the road/street is clear you may cross it.
    On the downside, if you get hit by a vehicle, it’s your fault….vehicles have precedence over pedestrians on the street/road.

    If you asked me what a street is for, I would clearly tell you that streets are for vehicles – that’s the first thing that would come into my mind I guess.

  3. Dan says:


    I was thinking that there are women, especially during the summer, that should get a tiket/fined because they are too attractive \ hot!
    That’s not good! I get distracted and that behind the wheel is too dangerous!

    It is funny how we change while driving. For instance, I have noticed that I speak by myself!
    I bet a penny I am not the only one doing that.

    I do not get how you can be fined for Jaywalking, I mean the lazy cop must first get me… and I am a good runner…..

    Bye guys! always a pleasure reading your comments.

  4. Peter says:

    It is interesting that at some point in history there has been a petition Against vehicle productions:)
    Back then, according to the article ,people were mostly against the innovation , and now their lives depends on it.
    It is evident that every break through or invention of some sorts have faced some opposition and protest whether it has been a novel medication discovery or the mechanical innovations.
    How ever , the innovation that has standed the test of time has usually proved the hard fact that every invention is one step forward towards a better and more convenient life.
    Take what we are discussing here, according to the article at hand the advent of car was never viewed as a revolution in terms of transformation for the first few years or so. It was judged as an intrusion to the routine that people were used to,a threat that had endangered people at the time. Century passes , and now the prospect of excluding the means of transpirations mean the end of civilization as we know it. Everyday we use either public or privet form of transformation to commute to work. Some ride on the buss ,some on the other hand ,take the subway, some people carpool ,and some individuals take their cars to the work. Can you imagine a vheicle-less world in which horses and carriages are the only carrier of choice :)? No , I don’t think so.

    The story never ends here. The needs for vehicles has creeped all over the place from a simple grocery to an emergency 911 call. grocery shopping is a routine experience, yet grocery stores no matter the size never run out of producuts since a 24/7 truck service constantly refreshes the about-to-empty shelves.the rule of thumb says:” An emergency situation needs to be responded within minutes no matter the distance.”
    no horse or carriag is able to accomodate it:)

    Letters are another point that manifest the importance of vehicles and the over-reliance of toay’s people on cars. People still communicate via letters for both pleasure and business purposes. They use postal services to greet one another ,to receive financial statements ,to get informed about some important, life-altering news like school admissions ,and so on. Letters are in circulation everyday fast and in time and all it happens through vehicles employed by postal
    Services in every single country. The circulation would never take place if it weren’t for the employed vehicles.

    All in all, today’s life has become possible due to an invention that once demed as a society menace.
    So ,let’s keep an open mind, shall we?



  5. Peter says:

    Cool picture by the way


  6. Val says:

    Here in Russia and in Kazakhstan, so I guess in all post-Soviet countries, we must cross the street across the crosswalk. I didn’t hear about fines for jaywalking on our roads, but don’t doubt that there are some laws on that in our legal system. I personally often jaywalk, because there is a pretty long distance to the nearest crosswalk. The good thing about our roads is that we have a lot of traffic lights on them, so we almost don’t use the crosswalks, at least I don’t.

  7. Yongho Chun says:

    Wow.. i didn’t know that auto companies are involved in setting up the jaywalking law… truly surprising..
    Where i live is in Korea, Gwangju, fourth biggest city. Jaywalking is completely normal here. It’s been considered one of the common lawbreakings among the citizens here.
    It’s hard to find someone cross the streets by keeping the stop signal, and the same thing for the drivers.
    People seem to care only when there are police near around them when they are about to jaywalk.

    As a matter of fact, apparently we have jaywalking laws, it’s just that people don’t keep the laws. Jaywalking is more serious in the city downtown than the suburbs.
    Even if you want to wait for the signal to turn to green, u will become so susceptible because u found yourself so hard to resist the temptation by seeing others crossing the streets on red light while you still have to wait and remain on the other side till the light changes.

    What matters most here is i think that whether you want to be honest to yourself or you don’t care about it.

  8. Mario says:


    Here in Italy there is no laws about jaywalking! However, I saw police officers fined people for it! Maybe they caused cars accident or something!!
    I also saw people crossing railroad track in a train station! This is not allowed here in Italy and it is, of course, very dangerous!!!


    Mario (Rome – Italy)

  9. Andreu Martínez says:


    Here in Catalonia jaywalkers are not guilty in case they don’t use the cross-walking places. In fact even though we have these cross-walking places and traffic signals with the green, amber and red colors they are not guilty if they cross the street with the traffic signal in red.

    We have driving laws that are very favorable for pedestrians and for jaywalkers as well.

    In fact I heard about pedestrians that on purpose even throw themselves against cars in order to ask for indemnities.


  10. Betty says:

    Dear Warren

    Thank you very much indeed for providing me a chance to learn something so important in my life.

    You see, I did not know the term ‘jaywalk’ until you tell us about it in the article above.

    English Café 51 was a few years back and I had not got that far yet.

    Wikipedia says “jaywalking is an informal term commonly used in North America to refer to illegal or reckless pedestrian crossing of a roadway”. If it is an informal term, what is the formal term for jaywalking?

    Why did I say it was very important in my life?

    I lived in England for quite a long time and I have been driving for so many years, yet I never knew the word ‘jaywalking’.

    I was surprised and so I did a lot of search about jaywalking. I found that it was not illegal to jaywalk in England. Not at all!

    I found an article on Friday, 12 January 2007 in “news.bbc.co.uk” with a title: “What every Brit should know about jaywalking”.

    It says: “In the UK no one would bat an eyelid. In Atlanta, you could be wrestled to the ground”.

    It also claims to be “a cautionary tale for any traveller – distinguished historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto tried to cross the road while in Atlanta for the conference of the American Historical Association, only to find himself in handcuffs and surrounded by armed police”.

    It is interesting for me to read comments from people from different parts of the world wrote about their own experiences with jaywalking.

    One said: “In the US, enforcement of jaywalking laws – and customs – can vary greatly, depending on the city and region. Visit NYC and you’ll see that pedestrians can cross anywhere at anytime, regardless of traffic volume. Traffic tickets, forget jail, are as rare as the dodo bird. Travel 200 miles to Washington DC, however, and you’ll find that stepping off the curb at an intersection, not to mention in the middle of a street, can result in honking and dirty stares from drivers”.

    Hong Kong is very different from Atlanta. We do not have so many police officers to look after just one jaywalkers.

    They do catch jaywalkers in Hong Kong, and the maximum fine is 2,000 Hong Kong dollars for jaywalking.

    The government uses a lot of guard rails and pedestrian barriers to separate pedestrian traffic from vehicular traffic where traffic is heavy. The guard rails lead pedestrians to crossings, and no one should climb over the rails or barriers.

    In fact, in less commercialized parts of Hong Kong, many people jaywalk. I am guilty of jaywalking as well. Every time I jaywalk together with many jaywalkers and we were quite sure there was not even a single policeman around and we all know about the area very well so that it is quite safe to do that.

    Nevertheless, I think I should stop doing that from now on.

    Thanks again, Warren, good educational topic.

    Best Regards

    Betty 🙂

  11. emiliano says:

    Good Betty, very good note.

    Like you I have been doing that for years, here it has been the usual for every body without any kind
    of punishment by the law.
    Even now it is common to look both sides of the street and if you are not in company of children
    (to not give them a bad example) and not any car are going you may cross the street without
    waiting for the green light or in the middle of the street where there is not a cross signal on the
    floor. We call “pasos de cebra” to this signals and sometimes even cars doesn´t respect them.
    Always careful despite you are crossing the street by the cross-walk (paso de cebra) as lot of cars
    doesn´t let you cross safely.

    Jaywalking is an absolute new term for me by all means. Thank´s a lot Warren as it is the rule
    that you always illustrate us with new vocabulary and information.
    Thanks again dear teacher.


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