August 8, 2009

Jaywalking in Boston "Punishable by a fine of $1"

If you haven't been here before you wouldn't imagine how rampant even blatantly illegal and unsafe jaywalking is in Boston. Here's a taste of why I don't miss driving...especially in Boston.

Punishable by a fine of $1

By Peter DeMarco | August 6, 2006

Bostonians jaywalk about as often as they visit Dunkin' Donuts. Is it any wonder, then, that the word ''jaywalker'' was supposedly coined in Boston?

``The Bostonian . . . has reduced a pedestrian who crosses streets in disregard of traffic signals to the compact `jaywalker,' " reads a 1917 Harper's Magazine article, according to Random House's dictionary division. Back then the word jay was used to describe someone who was unsophisticated, naive , or foolish -- something we still might call a jaywalker today.

But my favorite part of Random House's entry on jaywalking (I found it on their website) is the following line: ``Although jaywalkers have been called aggressive, city officials are equally aggressive against them -- and not only in Boston."

Aggressive enforcement? Now that's funny. When was the last time you heard of anyone getting a ticket for jaywalking? I mean, does the officer ask for your shoe size?

OK, I'll leave the jokes to Random House. But the question remains: Can you get a ticket for jaywalking?

What's the legal definition?

And if a pedestrian disobeys a crosswalk signal or simply dashes across the road, does he -- or you the driver -- have the right of way?

The law says
``Last time I checked, jaywalking was against the law, punishable by a fine," writes reader Morris Norvin of Mission Hill. Well, Morris, you are correct.
Jaywalking is against the law.

And it's punishable by a fine.

Of $1.

Yep. A single dollar.

``To stop a pedestrian -- it's kind of a joke," says Lieutenant Jack Albert, traffic commander for the Cambridge Police Department. ``Do you know what it would cost the community to prosecute that violation? It's like $75 or $80 to prosecute. But there is a law on the books."

The fine is spelled out in Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 90, Section 18A, which states that communities can punish pedestrians who break local jaywalking rules ``by a fine of one dollar for the first, second or third such offense . . . and by a fine of two dollars for the fourth or subsequent such offense so committed in such calendar year."

Why are the fines so low? Albert couldn't say for sure, but it stands to reason that legislators have been loath to raise the fine lest they spark a voter uprising.

Face it: As hazardous as jaywalking can be, just about everybody does it. According to a 1999 survey by the Boston Public Health Commission (there hasn't been a follow-up survey), only 12 percent of pedestrians obey ``Walk" signals at crosswalks , while a third of pedestrians disregard crosswalks entirely.

State law allows individual communities to decide what is or isn't jaywalking, but most communities follow this simple standard: If you are within 300 feet of a crosswalk, you must use it. If you're not, you can legally cross the street.

The bad news for drivers, of course, is that pedestrians maintain the right of way even when they walk against the light or dash anywhere across an open road.

``Yeah, the pedestrian is at fault," says Sergeant Larry Fitzgerald of the Brookline Police Department, which hasn't issued a jaywalking ticket in years. ``But if you run over the pedestrian, the judge is going to say shame on you. And that person's family is going to be living in your house."

If you as a driver ``don't stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk , it's a $200 fine," says Albert. ``If our officers are sitting there , they'll get the occasional violation. But there are always hundreds of pedestrians walking all over the street. We've just got to shake our heads."

The Public Health Commission launched a citywide campaign to get Boston residents to stop jaywalking after its 1999 survey, and a year later pedestrian traffic injuries reportedly had dropped 11 percent. Though the campaign is long over, officials from the commission's Childhood Injury Prevention Program continue to visit Boston public schools each fall to teach crosswalk safety.

If police can't curb jaywalking, maybe educators can.

``There's other cities I read about in the Northwest, like Seattle, where you have people waiting to go across the crosswalk," says Erin Christiansen, prevention program director. ``I don't think anyone has the key as to why we got started on our bad habits in Boston."

What drives you crazy about local drivers? Is there a traffic rule you've always wondered about, or a pet peeve that never fails to annoy you? Send us a message about it: We'll check it out.

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