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Seattle could be on the road to nixing its jaywalking law

The Seattle City Council has set its sights on a common traffic scourge: jaywalking.

At the council’s Monday briefing, Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez said she is looking into the city’s jaywalking laws and would like to have a “better understanding of whether these jaywalking ordinances actually accomplish a public safety purpose.”

“In my view, I don’t think having jaywalking ordinances actually deter people from jaywalking,” said Gonzalez. “I think that my theory … is probably supported by literature and scientific evidence and I’m going to endeavor to find that information.

“I do have questions about whether we should be criminalizing jaywalking at all,” she added.

It is unclear exactly what Gonzalez aims to do about Seattle jaywalking laws, whether it’s abolishing or decriminalizing them. But it is clear that she wants to get the conversation started.

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Council President Bruce Harrell said he would wait until the matter came up again before weighing in on it, but did note that he would “push back.” Councilmember Rob Johnson, however, is ready to jump on team Gonzalez to address Seattle’s jaywalking law. He argued that jaywalking can be safer than using a crosswalk.

“… Several individuals in the research and transportation fields have found that jaywalking results in a safer outcome for people because you are doing something that you are not supposed to be doing, so you look a little more intentionally and you spend a little more time, not on your phone, but peeking around,” Johnson said.

Jaywalking in Seattle

The term “jaywalking” arose in the early 1900s as the automobile industry was on the rise. A “jay” was a curse word for an unintelligent, rural person (perceived as such for carelessly walking in the road and getting in the way of cars). Jaywalking laws were promoted by the car industry to help them dominate the street.

But the recent council conversation doesn’t have much to do with country bumpkins roaming Seattle streets. It comes days after The Seattle Times reported that while cops have written less jaywalking tickets over the past few years, an increasing number of those tickets are being given to minorities. That disparity, perhaps, has the council wondering if the jaywalking law is unfair.

And outside of fairness, the law is not likely very effective in Seattle. A Seattle blog reported in 2014 that despite police issuing the $56 tickets, not a lot of people tend to pay them. The numbers (admittedly from 2013) indicate that offenders often opt to not pay their fine at all, and a few are successful at getting them dismissed in court. Of the $10,360 that 2013 jaywalking tickets should have produced, Seattle only received $3,534.

At the end of the day, do we want cops spending their time teaching safety lessons via tickets? Or would we rather have our limited police force tackling more serious issues, like drug investigations, car prowl rings, or property crimes? You know, the crimes that Seattle neighborhoods care about, yet get so little attention that they are hiring private security to take care of it.

The law may also be a bit out of touch with Seattle in general. The city has a bit of a reputation when it comes to crossing the street, including that locals will wait at a “no walk” sign for lengthy periods despite no traffic. That Seattle mentality was perhaps best displayed during the excitement following the Seattle Seahawks’ Super Bowl XLVIII win. As fans poured out of Ballard sports bars, they formed a celebratory mass running through the streets that was stopped only by one thing — a bright red hand at the crosswalk. A viral video caught the fans all waiting for a crosswalk sign to give them permission before they all erupted into celebration once again.

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