Jaywalking is the act of crossing a roadway when it is unlawful to do so. This includes crossing between intersections, as well as crossing at a crosswalk equipped with a signal, without waiting for the proper indication that it is safe to do so. In most jurisdictions, jaywalking is a low-level offense that has legal consequences, though exact pedestrian traffic laws vary by state. To explore this concept, consider the following jaywalking definition.

Definition of Jaywalking

  1. Noun. Crossing a street at a place other than a regular, marked crossing, or with a disregard for traffic.
  2. Noun. Crossing a street against a traffic light.

Origin Early 20th century colloquialism


History of Jaywalking

The term jaywalking first appeared around the time automobiles first came into fairly widespread use, referring to the unwise act of walking out into the path of motor vehicles. In the beginning of the 20th century, pedestrians were not accustomed to the use of automobiles, nor their relative silence compared to horse-drawn conveyances. The obvious danger led to the institution of traffic laws, both for the motor vehicles, and pedestrians.

Jaywalking Laws

Modern statutes in each state define how, when, and where pedestrians may cross roadways, as well as acts considered jaywalking. The purpose of jaywalking laws is not only to protect pedestrians, but drivers and other people in the area as well. Jaywalking often disrupts the regular flow of traffic, which may lead to accidents that cause property damage, injuries, and even death. While jaywalking is considered a minor infraction in most states, additional charges may be levied against the offending pedestrian if the act disrupts traffic or causes a motor vehicle accident.

Rules of the road typically require that drivers yield the right of way to pedestrians legally crossing the road. In some rural areas there are no marked crosswalks at intersections, an unmarked crosswalk is assumed as extensions of the sidewalks, making these legal crossing areas for pedestrians. In many jurisdictions, crossing the street at a location other than a legally marked crosswalk is considered jaywalking, as is walking on the roadway where sidewalks are present. In most jurisdictions, jaywalking laws make it illegal for pedestrians to cross at a signal-controlled crosswalk before the signal instructs them to do so.

For example:

Brad is in a hurry to get back to his office after lunch. As he approaches a busy intersection, he sees that the crosswalk indicator says “Don’t Walk.” A quick glance tells Brad there are no cars coming, so he quickly strides out into the crosswalk and across the street anyway. Although Brad is crossing at a marked crosswalk, he is in violation of jaywalking laws.

Jaywalking Statistics

Jaywalking may not seem like a major issue to most people, but the sheer number of accidents and injuries that occur from pedestrian incidents speaks for itself. Pedestrian accidents account for so many injuries and deaths in the United States, that the Center for Disease Control (the “CDC”) offers tips for pedestrian safety.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (the “NHTSA”) provides jaywalking statistics, as well as other traffic and pedestrian-related information and safety tips. According to the NHTSA, while many traffic incidents are resulting in fewer fatalities, the number of fatalities in pedestrian accidents actually increased in 2013, with a total of 4,735 pedestrian deaths nationwide. These are not only due to jaywalking incidents, though crossing a roadway illegally is the cause of a great many traffic incidents, accidents, injuries, and deaths.

Jaywalking is a serious problem, one which impacts both drivers and pedestrians. The National Safety Council has recently published the following jaywalking statistics:

  • More than 6,000 pedestrian accidents each year are caused by jaywalking, rather than by driver error
  • Over a 30-year period, approximately 180,000 pedestrians have been injured or killed in jaywalking accidents in the U.S.
  • Every 11 minutes or so, a pedestrian is killed due to jaywalking

Penalties for Jaywalking

Penalties for jaywalking vary by jurisdiction, though the act is often classified as an infraction, or possibly a misdemeanor if serious damages or injuries are caused by the offender. Most often, police officers issue a citation for the offense, which issues a fine similar to a parking ticket.

Penalties for jaywalking can, however, be more severe if the individual is a repeat offender, or if he causes a danger to others, or causes an accident to occur. It is rare for a person to actually be arrested for simple jaywalking, but he may be arrested if other offenses occur at the same time.

For example, in the state of Nevada, if a jaywalker causes an accident that results in the death of another person, he can be charged with involuntary manslaughter. If convicted, penalties for jaywalking in this circumstance may result in up to four years imprisonment, and a permanent record as a convicted felon.

Jaywalking Death of Four Year Old Boy

In April 2010, Raquel Nelson began crossing a busy 5-lane roadway to reach her apartment building on the other side. Nelson’s two daughters and son were with her on the dark road. As they crossed the road, the boy, A.J., pulled away from his mother, and was killed when he was struck by a van. This terrible tragedy could have been avoided had Nelson been willing to walk with her children just a third of a mile to the nearest crosswalk.

Both the driver and Raquel Nelson were arrested at the scene, and Nelson was charged with second degree vehicular homicide, reckless conduct, and jaywalking. The trial court judge dismissed the reckless conduct charge, and upheld the jaywalking and vehicular homicide charges, sentencing Nelson to one year probation. The judge gave the grieving mother an option to request a retrial. If she was convicted in a new trial, however, Nelson would face up to two years in prison.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Double Jeopardy – Trying a person for the same crime twice.
  • Fatality – A death resulting from an accident or a disaster.
  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Misdemeanor – A criminal offense typically punishable by a year or less in jail.
  • Offense – A violation of law or rule, the committing of an illegal act.
  • Pedestrian – A person who is walking along a roadway, or in a developed area.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.
  • Vehicular Homicide – The crime of causing the death of a person by the illegal driving of a motor vehicle.