Rules of the Road

What exactly is jaywalking ... and why is it so offensive?

Question: What exactly is jaywalking? Is it just crossing the street where there isn’t a crosswalk?

Answer: A little more than 100 years ago, the New York Times decried the use of term jaywalker as, “highly opprobrious” and “a truly shocking name.”

I had to look up opprobrious, and if your vocabulary doesn’t include that word either, here are some synonyms: derogatory, insulting and scandalous.

Who knew calling someone a jaywalker could be so offensive?

Back in 1910, calling someone a jay was essentially saying they were a hillbilly that didn’t belong in the city. It was a semi-vulgar classist insult. But how did it become associated with traffic?

Until the advent of the car, streets were shared by pedestrians, bikes, horse and buggy, and streetcars. Everyone felt equally entitled to use the road.

As cars became more common, that began to change. According to traffic historian Peter Norton, in the 1910s, the automobile was coming under fire for the increasing frequency of killing pedestrians.

Folks in the automotive industry were concerned, but not in the way you might think. They weren’t worried about pedestrians; they were worried about the future of the business.

The automotive industry didn’t coin the word, but they were quick to adopt the jaywalking insult as a way of shaming pedestrians out of the roadway.

In the early days of the car, it was pretty much assumed that in a crash between a car and a pedestrian, the driver of the car was at fault.

Then George Graham of the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce (NACC) had an idea that reshaped American attitudes toward cars and the people struck by them. Graham launched a centralized accident news service for newspaper reporters, to “make sure that the reporter gets and records the essential facts.”

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What exactly is jaywalking? Is it just crossing the street where there isn’t a crosswalk? Washington state law makes it a little more confusing than that for drivers and pedestrians trying to stay safe. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

This news service didn’t have any problem placing blame, and within months newspapers were reporting that 70 to 90 percent of car vs. pedestrian crashes were caused by jaywalkers.

About 100 years later, jaywalking has lost much of its derogatory connotation and is a common term everywhere except in the law, at least in Washington.

In our state we have three relevant laws: They are titled, “Crosswalks”, “Crossing at other than crosswalks” and “Pedestrian control signals.” You can probably guess what they’re each about.

Here’s the thing though; even in locations other than crosswalks, it’s mostly legal to cross the street. What changes is who has to yield.

Here’s how the rules break down:

At a crosswalk, drivers are required to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk. I’ll point out that what makes a crosswalk is location, not paint on pavement.

The legal definition of a crosswalk is kind of confusing and takes a few concentrated readings to figure out but, pretty much, wherever two streets intersect, there is a crosswalk. If it’s painted on the road it’s a marked crosswalk; no paint means it’s an unmarked crosswalk.

Marked crosswalks can also show up in mid-block locations; you sometimes find those in urban areas, especially if the blocks are really long.

Outside of intersections and marked mid-block crosswalks, pedestrians are required to yield to cars on the roadway, but it’s generally not illegal to cross the street.

You probably noticed the word “generally” in the last sentence. There are four scenarios where it is clearly illegal to cross the road, or what might be called jaywalking. Here they are:

Between adjacent intersections at which traffic control signals are in operation. If intersections on either side of you have stop signs, you can cross mid-block after yielding to traffic. If the intersections have traffic lights, it’s illegal. That would include most urban areas, so city-dwellers, you need to use the crosswalks.

Diagonally at an intersection (unless authorized by traffic control devices.) There are some cities that have implemented what’s called a pedestrian scramble. These are intersections where all traffic stops at the same time to let pedestrians cross in any direction, including diagonally. Outside of those locations, crossing an intersection diagonally is pretty nuts.

When a sign prohibits crossing the street. Duh.

When the pedestrian signal has the big red hand or “Don’t Walk” displayed. Duh, again.

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Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit