JOHNSON – Jaywalking, Europe versus North America

(Image: Apple Records)


THE OTHER DAY, I had to lock up the brakes to avoid a young person who jaywalked, with their attention buried in their phone.  As a response to the screech of tires, she looked up at me and threw me a one finger salute.  I wasn’t in the wrong … or was I?

David Johnson.

I admit, as I hammered on the brakes, I had a flash of annoyance … impertinence even … what is this pedestrian doing in my lane in the middle of the road?  MY road?

I grew up being told that if you try and cross the street without using a crosswalk, you have committed the crime of jaywalking.

So she did it wrong.  Or did she?

Let’s look at Jaywalking.

The etymology involved here isn’t exactly clear.  Originally it was about a ‘jay driver’ or a person who did not drive their horse drawn carriages on the correct side of the road, with ‘jay’ being an early slur for someone stupid, unsophisticated or inexperienced. It’s possible the origin includes ‘jake walk’, an early term related to a drunkard’s walk.

The word jay became synonymous with crossing the street at places other than assigned crosswalks, when it was introduced by auto industry aligned groups in the 1920s, as part of a concerted pro-car, anti-pedestrian propaganda campaign in America … starting in Tacoma, Washington of all places.

When cars were first introduced in North America, there were few crosswalks painted on the street, and pedestrians generally ignored the ones that existed. They literally didn’t need them as there just was not that many cars.

As cars became more widely available, pedestrian accidents skyrocketed with hundreds of thousands of Americans being killed in car crashes over the first few decades of the 20th century.

“Pedestrians are being run over,” says the auto industry?  “Hold our beer, we got this.”

To counter all this negative publicity against cars, the auto industry lobby doubled down and sought to enact traffic laws that would shift blame from drivers and their cars to the pedestrians themselves. And it worked. Not only did cities and states begin criminalizing jaywalking, but the U.S. government supported the anti-pedestrian propaganda campaign by ridiculing jaywalkers and placing blame on them for pedestrian/automobile accidents, by literally calling those walking as less intelligent or ‘Jay’.

Smart people don’t jaywalk, they said.

Canada pretty much just ran with this as well.

But there’s a problem.  Here we are many decades later and vehicle/ pedestrian accidents in North America far exceed Europe … and yet, many European countries do not have jaywalking laws at all.  So do jaywalking laws work to save lives or not?

Across the pond recently, some of our European allies have taken a more laissez-faire attitude towards jaywalking by literally making it totally legal.

They just call it … walking.

For example, there are no laws against jaywalking in Scandinavia, Switzerland or Italy. The same goes for the U.K., meaning that The Beatles didn’t need to use the crosswalk for their famous “Abbey Road” album cover.

In fact, some European countries have never had Jaywalking laws, and some countries have rules that stipulate that within certain distances between you and a crosswalk (50 to 100 meters) you must move down the street to the crosswalk … but if you’re beyond that distance it’s go ahead and cross wherever you like.

The Netherlands used to have laws against jaywalking, but repealed these statutes in 1995 to simplify the traffic code and give pedestrians more freedom. Imagine that.

The culture there, and in many European countries, puts the safety of pedestrians and cyclists as the responsibility of the driver, hard stop.  It has always been the cultural norm.  There was no ‘jaywalking’ auto industry lobby play over there to alter this concept.

I had a Paris Street tour guide tell us all to “Don’t look, just go, they will stop.”
… and they do, they actually just stop and wait for you, a busy road full of traffic.

France does have detailed rules including fines … but in practice, no one uses them.
At the same time, French drivers by law must always let pedestrians cross if they have already started or clearly intend to do so, even when the pedestrian is disregarding the rules, drivers will bear full responsibility if an accident occurs.  A dichotomy to be sure, but it works.

How do drivers in much of Europe react to a jaywalker?

They don’t honk or seem frustrated.  Drivers don’t assume the pedestrian should not be there like I did with the finger-happy young lady in Kamloops … they just happily or at the very least … quietly … wait. I personally saw this in France, Italy, The Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and elsewhere.

I will add that in Spain they didn’t seem to get the memo.

We have to look at this general trend and figure out why. The reason for this is because of habit, culture and infrastructure.

Interestingly, in some reported countries it is considered rude or out of place to honk or gesticulate angrily at a jaywalking pedestrian, the expected behaviour is to appear to calmly wait and be happy to do so.

Infrastructure wise, European cities are old.  Old roads, even in downtown cores are tight and often twisty.  City designs were for many hundreds of years based on slow moving horse drawn carriages.

A horse can stop on a dime while walking, and their natural character tendency is to not tromp on a pedestrian.  They just stop.  For hundreds and hundreds of years, pedestrians controlled the streets, and their potential enemy would just stop and wait for them.

When the first slow moving cars arrived on the European scene, they had to shimmy into the existing street culture, so they traveled slowly and carefully, and the culture between vehicle and pedestrian more or less stayed the same; drivers just decided to not run pedestrians down.

Over time as cars began moving faster, there already was a far more aware and safety conscious driver at the wheel, with the culturally trained patience to slow down and wait.

At the same time in Europe, there wasn’t the institutional desire to quickly build the city design structure with wide streets, as happened in America.  The widening and redesigning of European streets has been a very slow and ‘one at a time’ process.

Obviously out-of-city high speed highway systems have been built to handle inter European car and truck traffic, but pedestrians are not really as much of an issue on highways.

Today’s European city driving culture still prioritizes the rights of the pedestrians, far above the car.  More recently the ‘merican impatience has been noticed more on the road over there.  That said, pedestrian accident stats are still far below here.

Here in the colonies, the car-centric mentality grew differently.  In America, the transition from thin streets and turkey paths to wide roads was within one single generation following Eisenhower’s Federal Highway Act of 1956, which started a wholesale rebuilding of Americas road system.

Vehicles were given precedence and priority; cities were literally designed with them in mind … and were also designed to keep cars away from pedestrians and cyclists.  In doing so, drivers learned to rely on the knowledge that driving lanes belonged to them, so it became: ‘this is my space, get out of my way’.

Instead of a culture that always found a way to get these two groups to intermingle safely as in Europe, we have segregated the two, so when they do come together, we get a very much ballooned accident rate between pedestrians, cyclists and cars.

Some North America jurisdictions have realised all this, and are trying to turn the clock back.

Today, some criminal justice advocates believe jaywalking should be decriminalized altogether. In 2021, Virginia became the first and only state to decriminalize jaywalking and a similar bill to decriminalize jaywalking was vetoed by California’s governor Gavin Newsom, also in 2021.

Now obviously all of this may not specifically match everyone’s travel experience, and many people will have been honked at in Europe and almost run over … but for those that have traveled there, they will agree that it is just safer to walk around, especially in Scandinavia and The Netherlands.

So keep that in mind and don’t be surprised the next time as a cyclist you are cut off by a driver … the cultural training literally says that you’re not there … they actually don’t know any better.

We have rules to keep cyclists off the sidewalk, yet stuffing them on the streets just isn’t working either.  Maybe the answer is putting them back on the sidewalk, but require by law that every bike must have a ‘briiing, briiing’  bell as is the norm in Amsterdam, you can hear those a block away.

The larger question is, should jaywalking be abolished here?  Can the culture here be turned around to be a more driver responsibility approach?  Probably not, it would literally take laws like in France that state that any accident between a pedestrian and a car will always be the driver’s fault … and I don’t see that happening.

Which means we will continue to hear the complaints of cyclists and pedestrians for generations to come.

… And I’m going to forever be offered the finger, when a jaywalker is too busy staring at their phone.

David Johnson is a Kamloops resident, community volunteer and self described maven of all things Canadian.

About Mel Rothenburger (9652 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

1 Comment on JOHNSON – Jaywalking, Europe versus North America

  1. Well by direct experience I can tell you for sure if you try to cross a road in Italy without looking you stand almost 100% chance at not living another day. Similarly in Kamloops, as a pedestrian and commuter cyclist, I can tell you that if you don’t look and cross carefully you will regret it or your loved ones will. Let’s explore ways to decrease vehicular traffic, please help David!

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