The new jaywalking

I’m riding in my car.

I turn on the radio.

And then, before I can even lip-sync “Fire,” there is he is.

Right in my windshield.

Scruffy. Scraggly. Holding a cardboard “God Bless” sign like the world owes him a living.

Why doesn’t he get a job? Why is he standing on the median with his hand out?

Doesn’t he realize that I might accidentally run into him? Even kill him?

And it would be all his fault. Roads are for cars, not beggars.

Yeah, we’ve all felt like that. All of those freeloaders with their hands out at all those Gainesville intersections. Like we’re supposed to feel guilty and shell out our hard-earned shekels.

If only we could make them go away.

Say, here’s a idea…

What if the city commission passed an ordinance making it illegal for anybody outside a motor vehicle to “interact” with somebody inside a motor vehicle?

Forget all of that First Amendment nonsense about the right to beg. This is strictly about public safety.

You know, to protect Mr. Motorist from accidentally killing the beggar in his windshield.

An Oct. 18 Sun editorial says Alachua County has already passed it, and adds: “The city shouldn’t wait any longer to pass a similar ordinance.”

Noting that it has been more than a year since a panhandler was run over and killed on a medium at NW 43rd Street and 16th Blvd, the Sun said “The focus should be on traffic safety and preventing another death.”

Not so fast Gainesville.

Maybe Alachua County’s ordinance hasn’t been challenged…yet. But a similar one in Oklahoma City has. And in August a federal appeals court ruled it unconstitutional.

Turns out that people have been known to use medians for purposes other than begging – like hawking newspapers or waving protest signs.

“Objectively, medians share fundamental characteristics with public streets, sidewalks and parks, which are quintessential public fora,” the court ruled.

But never mind all that. When you come right down to it the move to criminalize “interactions” with automobiles is just another jaywalking law. And we know how those have worked out.

At the urging of the auto industry we passed a lot of jaywalking laws beginning early in the last century, mostly to protect people in automobiles from being guilt ridden for running down people outside automobiles.

As a recent article in Bloomberg’s CityLab notes, “as city streets became sites of increasing carnage in the early days of America’s auto era — about 200,000 Americans (many of them children) were killed by cars in the 1920s — automakers sought regulations that would shift blame away from drivers.”

Turns out that back then, “jay” was street jargon for “someone stupid or unsophisticated.”

So have jaywalking laws made us all safer?

Not if you consider that just about every year in autoAmerica the number of people who are killed while inside automobiles steadily decreases.

While the number of people killed in accidents while outside autos, primarily pedestrians and cyclists, has gone up and up.

“Despite heavy handed and selective jaywalking enforcement, pedestrian deaths in the U.S. have increased rapidly in the last decade. As two of the top experts on pedestrian safety in the country, we think it is time for cities to consider decriminalizing jaywalking or eliminating the infraction altogether.”

This from Angie Schmitt and Charles K. Brown, authors of the above mentioned CityLab article.

It turns out that jaywalking laws tend to be used selectively by police officers against people of color.

For instance, a newspaper investigation in nearby Jacksonville revealed that people of color were “three times as likely to be stopped and cited for jaywalking as white people. Those living in the poorest neighborhoods were six times as likely. Black men and boys were the most frequent targets.”

Other than keeping black men, um, in line, arguably the most useful thing about jaywalking laws are that they make the rest of us feel less guilty when somebody is run over by a car.

Too bad. If they weren’t so lazy, so distracted, so stupid (chose one) they might have lived.

And then there is this: Blaming the victims for getting themselves killed in our public streets glosses over the fundamental reason that people keep getting killed in our public streets.

To wit: So many of our roads are over-engineered for the express intent of allowing motorists to get where they want to go as fast as possible that they tend to be death traps for anyone who has not cocooned themselves inside a couple tons of steel.

So, yeah, Gainesville, let’s go ahead and pile on still one more jaywalking crime, this one to get panhandlers out of our sight and out of our minds – assuming of course that some judge doesn’t toss it out. But no one should make the mistake of believing that it will make our streets any safer.

While the death of a single panhandler in Gainesville last year garnered a lot of attention, we tend to lose 7 to 10 pedestrians and cyclists a year in this town. Indeed, in just one day last January, three pedestrians were run over and killed in and around Gainesville.

On the same day. Talk about improperly “interacting” with automobiles.

You want to stop killing people in the streets? Then change our street designs so they are less permissive toward heavy-footed drivers and more forgiving to people who just want to cross the street and get home alive.

As for the panhandlers. If you can’t stand the sight of them don’t give them any money.

But don’t run them down either.

Author: floridavelocipede

A sometime journalist who used to string words together for a living before I retired to run a non-profit cycle touring organization that will henceforth go unnamed, as I have subsequently retired from that career as well. I write a bi-monthly column, theater reviews and an occasional magazine piece for my old newspaper. If I still had a business card it would read: Ron Cunningham: Trained Observer Of The Human Condition. Because like The Donald, you know, ego.

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