Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Jaywalking laws too severe, critics say

Homeless, Black people make up big percentage of people ticketed

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OLYMPIA - Taking cues from California, there's a push to lighten up on jaywalking fines—a move that hits the headlines for its impact on both the homeless community and Black pedestrians.

In Washington state, Black pedestrians are stopped by police at a rate four times higher than the general population. Forty-one percent of those ticketed for jaywalking in the state are homeless.

Jaywalking is considered a non-criminal traffic violation, carrying an average fee of around $70.

In 2023 a "Free to Walk" bill gained 700 initial supporters, with another 200 endorsing the idea this year. If approved, the new bill, SB 5383, would decriminalize jaywalking by restricting police enforcement to instances where pedestrians abruptly enter the path of a vehicle. It does not address speed limits and exempts fully controlled limited access highways from these enforcement limits.

DeAndre Anderson, twice stopped for jaywalking, testified in favor of the bill, urging the House Transportation Committee to consider the bill’s impact on "people who look like me." Anderson encouraged committee members to consider how Black men are profiled in these cases.

On Anderson's 18th birthday, he went to the mall for ice cream before returning home to his high school graduation party. As he entered a crosswalk with the red hand traffic signal flashing, he was detained. 

“It's a really hard experience for me to even try to cross streets, because I know that will be another excuse to be harassed,” Anderson said. “I have friends that think I am ridiculous because I wait at the crosswalk until the light changes, but I know better than they do”.

The second time he was ticketed, Anderson was crossing the street in Ballard with a friend to get cupcakes. An officer detained them even though there were no oncoming cars.

“I had a long conversation with the Lord in the backseat of that cop car, like what did I do to get here, why is this happening to me,” Anderson said. “I know the laws are supposed to be in place to help people, to help us stay safe, but it really does not feel like that.”

Ethan C. Campbell, a Research Partner and community advocate at Transportation Choices, spent nearly two years on his jaywalking research report titled "Ticket to Walk: How Jaywalking Enforcement Impacts Washingtonians."

Jaywalking laws originated in the 1910s and 20s as driving became more common. The term "jay" was derogatory, denoting someone unsophisticated or uneducated, which influenced law enforcement practices, according to Campbell. He said jaywalking issues aren't new in Washington. In 1997, a crucial Washington Supreme Court ruling limited police from conducting warrant checks during jaywalking stops. 

“Being detained for crossing the street is a reality for many people in Washington state,” Campbell said. “People have been tackled, punched, tased, choked, and held at gunpoint during these stops. 

Sen. Rebecca Saladana (D-Seattle), is the primary sponsor of the bill. The "Free to walk" legislation was introduced last year, but was not approved. She has since collaborated with 30 statewide organizations prioritizing "mobility justice."

“It's not making people safer. It's not changing habits. When you give someone a ticket, it does not create a sidewalk,” Saldana said. 

Taylor Gardner, representing the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said Washington roads currently pose safety risks, citing rising fatalities and injuries as evidence.

“This standard cannot stop a car when a person decides to step off a curb,” Gardner says. 

Gardner acknowledges the bill allows for a common-sense approach: if jaywalking is done safely and sensibly, it's allowed. The bill doesn't legalize jaywalking but outlines when it can be enforced.

Mark McKechnie of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission said if a bill is adopted, it should apply only to roadways with posted speeds of 30 mph or lower.

He said a record spike in pedestrian deaths occurred between 2021 and 2022. From 2012 to 2022, 61% of fatalities happened outside crosswalks and 85% occurred on roads with speeds exceeding 30 mph. 

In January 2023, jaywalking was decriminalized in California under the Freedom to Walk Act. Pedestrians can now cross streets anywhere without penalty. 

If passed, this legislation would restrict police enforcement of pedestrian roadway laws and eliminate the obligation for pedestrians to walk facing traffic on shoulders when sidewalks are absent or inaccessible.

If passed, Washington would join California, Nevada, Virginia, Anchorage, Kansas City, and Denver in restricting jaywalking enforcement. 

The Washington State Journal is a non-profit news website funded by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.



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