clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Getting to the other side

The term jaywalking means crossing the street where you're not supposed to. Maybe even risking your life.

My dictionary says it is "to cross a street carelessly or in an illegal manner so as to be endangered by traffic."From the time we're little kids, we are taught not to jaywalk, but many of us do it anyway.

In a recent Washington Post article about big city jaywalking, Lawrence Proulx asserted that in a jumble of streets that intersect at odd angles, jaywalking is surprisingly common.

Proulx, a confirmed and experienced jaywalker, considers jaywalking offensive only when it is done badly.

It is, he says, "a fine art that must be effortless yet efficient." According to Proulx, a jaywalker must "negotiate traffic without disrupting it."

He believes that the artist the jaywalker most closely resembles is the bullfighter. They both have the same goal - "an elegant flirtation with danger."

With streets much simpler than those of Washington, Salt Lake jaywalkers may need less artistic ability, but they're prolific, and they're pretty good at it.

According to the Salt Lake City Code, "No pedestrian shall cross a roadway at any place other than in a crosswalk. If no crosswalk exists within a distance of seven hundred feet of the desired point of crossing, a pedestrian may cross by the shortest straight route to the opposite curb after exercising due care and caution and yielding to all vehicular traffic."

Ah, there's the loophole.

It means that a person can jaywalk with impunity if the 700 feet rule is in his or her favor. It is anybody's guess, however, as to how many pedestrians can accurately estimate a distance of 700 feet so they can jaywalk with a clear conscience.

It is even a smaller number who carry a tape measure. Suffice it to say, 700 feet is longer than you think.

Currently, few Salt Lakers are cited for jaywalking. But according to Lt. Phil Kirk, public information officer of the Salt Lake Police Department, jaywalking is on the increase, and there is a plan to "crack down" on it.

According to the Salt Lake City prosecutor's office, jaywalking is considered "a minor infraction" and the penalty varies from $0 to $500, depending on how the judge rules.

That's a pretty wide disparity, but the rule of thumb seems closer to $57, a common fine in Salt Lake. Because of an increase in auto-pedestrian accidents, Salt Lake officials recently announced a decision to seek a change of policy. They hope judges will hit jaywalkers with a $200 fine.

In Washington, D.C., the penalty for jaywalking varies only from $5 to $10.

Jaywalking, of course, should automatically require a $500 penalty. If that were the case, the riffraff would shun jaywalking, leaving it entirely to the unquestionably talented and the undeniably graceful.

The more brazen jaywalkers are those found darting across the street far from the corner. Even though most parents teach their kids to cross only at the corner, good jaywalking is hampered if that rule is religiously kept.

Salt Lake's short blocks and frequent midblock crosswalks should discourage jaywalking. But most Salt Lake jaywalkers are impatient types who can't bear to walk a few more feet down the street to reach a crosswalk. Just before the light, they tend to make a break.

Recently, I watched several downtown jaywalkers in action:

One man crossing 200 South between State and Main, walked casually halfway, then realized he was getting into trouble as a bus approached, so he jogged quickly to the other side, waving his newspaper in a gesture of friendship toward the bus driver.

He just barely escaped getting creamed.

On South Temple Street, between West Temple and 200 West, a man deliberately crossed just before he got to the light. Unruffled, he walked from one side to the other, without ever turning to look in either direction.

As he approached the other side he had no idea he had narrowly missed getting flattened by a large camper vehicle.

Farther up South Temple, just before the crosswalk where people legally cross from Temple Square to Crossroads Mall, a jaywalker confidently walked out to the middle with no traffic threat.

In the middle, he paused, and as the traffic picked up, he jogged to the other side. He had no close call, and his form was perfect.

Between 4 and 4:30 p.m., I observed a different kind of jaywalker. Several people, both men and women, walked out of the LDS Church Office Building on North Temple Street. Quickly, they each jaywalked to the median strip, where they paused, then weaved skillfully between cars to the other side, where they boarded their buses in the nick of time.

It was evident that all were experienced jaywalkers.

On State Street, between 100 South and 200 South, I watched as several people got off a bus and promptly crossed behind it to jaywalk to the west side of the street.

After a man with a backpack did it, I jaywalked after him. I wanted to interview him, and you can't talk to jaywalkers if you're faint of heart.

On the other side, this man entered a smoke shop, so I waited for him outside. When he came out five minutes later, I told him I didn't want his name, that I was writing about jaywalking, and would he tell me his motivation for doing so.

Looking nervous, he claimed he only did it because he was in a hurry for a bus. Sure. A guy in a hurry who first spends five minutes in the smoke shop? This man was obviously a polished, confirmed jaywalker.

Immediately afterward, I observed a woman get off a bus, then jaywalk with assurance to the east side of State Street.

Taking a deep breath, I darted after her, terrified because the traffic was heavy, and found her sitting at another bus stop. When I breathlessly asked her why she jaywalked, she became agitated and said, "I'm, uh, uh, SICK. I just can't walk all the way to the corner."

Most jaywalkers seem hesitant to talk about their secret little sin. But not farther up State Street, between South Temple and North Temple streets, where I saw three well-dressed men in white shirts and ties casually crossing to the island, then to the other side where they entered a coffee shop.

Getting steadily more brazen myself, I followed them across, not nearly as frightened as I had been when I started. Ominously, I found it was becoming easier to weave in and out of moving cars. Maybe I could become an agile jaywalker if I worked at it.

Maybe I was being corrupted.

Inside, I asked them to tell me their motivations for jaywalking.

One man said, "Just to save time. We always jaywalk when we come here to get a snack." When I asked if that was the only time he engaged in jaywalking, he said, "Absolutely."

Shocked, one of his companions said, "Really? I jaywalk ALL THE TIME. Not just here, but also in Tremonton, where I live."

None of the jaywalkers I saw would be classified by Proulx as inept, because they didn't cross in fits and starts. They showed no signs of panic. They looked for all the world as if jaywalking came naturally.

Anyone tempted to jaywalk should know that it is a lot safer to cross a street when traffic is expected from two directions instead of four. That's why crossing away from an intersection pays off.

However, learning to weave effortlessly between cars, walking briskly, sometimes trotting, is difficult. It takes practice and grace and is not a good idea for just anyone.

So if you try it, you should be sure your heart is strong. Maybe a doctor's certificate would be a good idea. Then carefully measure the distance between the intersection and your point of departure to exactly 700 feet.

And finally, if you make a mistake or act irresponsibly, be darned sure you can afford $200.