how walking became a crime

MLewyn's picture

I just heard an amazing set of presentations by Eric Dumbaugh and  Peter Norton (author of a new book, Fighting Traffic). Dumbaugh begin with a statistical table listing causes of pedestrians being killed by cars; nearly every cause somehow showed pedestrians at fault (e.g. jaywalking, pedestrian using electronic device, etc.). In essence, our culture presumes that if a pedestrian is killed by a 2-ton vehicle, the pedestrian rather than the driver is generally at fault.

Norton showed that this was not always the case. Before the 1920s, streets belonged to pedestrians; it was the norm that the pedestrian could walk wherever he or she pleased, and that children could play in the street; popular culture often blamed car speed for pedestrians being killed in the street. (For example, Norton showed photos to monuments to dead pedestrians in two or three cities). The idea of jaywalking was simply not part of the popular vocabulary. Obviously, this was a problem for the car industry; citizens begin to campaign for lower speed limits (and in Cincinnati, there was even a referendum on speed governors that would mechanically limit car speed).

So they and their allies (e.g. AAA) created "safety" campaigns designed to redefine car/pedestrian crashes as the pedestrian's fault. For example, they would have people hand out cards to pedestrians defining "jaywalking" and telling pedestrians they shouldn't do it. They also ridiculed jaywalking, for example by having people walk in clown costumes with signs stating "I'm a jaywalker." Eventually, cities passed anti-jaywalking laws. The most extreme example of the "streets are for cars" mentality is something like the Raquel Nelson incident, in which an Atlanta-area county sought to punish a mother when her child was killed by a drunk driver while crossing the street.

Similarly, auto clubs sought to keep children off streets by passing out coloring books stating that "the street is for autos."

Norton also talked about the genesis of the gas tax: like anti-jaywalking laws, it spread like wildfire throughout the states in the 1920s, at the behest of the car lobby. Why would car lobbyists support the gas tax? Because if taxes were paid by motorists, then the street would be defined by bureaucrats as something designed to serve motorists.

Finally, Norton talked about the idea that the "American love affair for the car"; he said that it was first raised in a 1961 TV show, "Merrilly we Roll Along", which was sponsored by Dupont (which then owned 1/3 of GM) and used the term repeatedly. In other words, this term (often used by environmentalists as well as supporters of auto-dependent development) is nothing but a industry propaganda talking point.


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