Jaywalking is Rational

The principle goal of the pedestrian is not to get hit by motorized vehicles.

The best way to prevent contact with automobiles is to avoid proximity with them altogether.

Jaywalking allows pedestrians to self-determine their distance to automobiles, thereby diminishing the likelihood of coming into contact with one.

Nowhere does a pedestrian come into closer proximity with a vehicle than at a controlled intersection, at which point their safety depends on the attentiveness and alertness of every motorist in the vicinity.

Given that a majority of traffic collisions happen at intersections and road junctions, they are perhaps the last place a rational, alert pedestrian wants to be.

Jaywalkers, by contrast, do not presume that their personal safety is the responsibility of motorists. Yes, like crosswalk pedestrians, a jaywalker also take their life in their hands when they cross the road, but they take their lives into their own hands. Jaywalkers must assume they are the only agent in the equation that is paying attention.

The jaywalker crosses the road only when they are satisfactorily convinced that it is safe to do so. In comparison, pedestrian crosswalks are only ‘safe’ to the extent that every other agent is following the rules, and they require pedestrians to accept this as a given. Crosswalks demand that pedestrians trust the people who are whizzing around, encased in steel cages, with their very lives.

Put it this way: ‘Walk’ and ‘Don’t Walk’ signs ask you to accept, a priori, that everyone else is awake and competent. The question is: is this a bet worth making with your mortal well-being?

The point is not that jaywalking is safe. Jaywalking is ridiculously hazardous. But is it more dangerous than trudging across vehicular intersections, where the velocity transitions and directional changes of automobiles are at their highest? My argument is that jaywalking is ‘safer’ than crossing at controlled intersections.

So far, you have only heard one side of the argument. Michelle, my brilliant partner in life — and public health nurse extraordinaire — has a very different angle. And our variance in thinking makes for enlivening evening walks together.

Michelle argues that the world is safer when everyone follows the rules. Obeying the traffic signals equals social coordination, predictability, and process. Ultimately, the rules equal safety. If everyone jaywalked, the streets would be chaos. Invariably, more people would take greater and greater risks, equaling tragic increases in pedestrian death and injury.

From Michelle’s perspective, using crosswalks is safer on the whole because they reinforce standardizing patterns. Controlled intersections yield more uneventful journeys across the street precisely because they require human beings to trust one another. At this place, between these lines, pedestrians will walk across, and everyone should expect this to happen at regular intervals.

Two distinct conceptions of safety emerge. I think pedestrians are better off to avoid trusting motorists altogether. Michelle says we achieve security through synchronization; we are safer — walkers and drivers alike — when we can anticipate each other’s behavior with some degree of confidence.

In the end, this is a thought experiment about trust. Is it expedient to my personal well-being to trust complete strangers? Or is it a better defense to be permanently suspicious of all those anonymous folks whizzing around in their steel cages? Not to overextend the analogy, but our debate mirrors a fundamental question of society: what responsibilities do we bear for one another as strangers, especially in light of obvious power differentials? In a sense, when it comes to getting to the other side of the street, I’m a jaywalking libertarian, and Michelle is a signal following, collectivistic utilitarian.

If tasked with the responsibility of ‘designing’ a safe society, I too would seek to alleviate the need for people to run helter-skelter across the road. Yes, at this scale, I admit the logic of intersections makes sense. If everyone were a jaywalker, motorists would share none of the responsibility for their safety. Crosswalks are much more than a place to get from one side to the other: they are social contracts. They distribute responsibility: every motorist is now partially accountable for every pedestrian’s safety, too.

Ergo, as rational as jaywalking might seem for an individual, it would be irrational wipe out all the laws and rip out all the civic infrastructure governing crosswalks. I must admit that abiding by the social contract of intersections is in my personal interest precisely because it forces drivers to be responsible for my well-being. As with any contract, trust is a non-negotiable ingredient. If I want drivers to assume some personal interest in my mortal survival here, I ought to abide within the parameters we’ve agreed to.

I still hate the vehicle-to-pedestrians proximity at crosswalks. All it takes is for a foot to slip off a pedal, a driver to peek at a text message, or for an idiot to rush a turn, and I’m toast. I’m utterly defenseless. At the same time, intersections slow everyone down. We all agree, in theory, to take turns. We can look each other in the eye. (Or flip each other off.) Intersections force interactions. And it is because I am the defenseless party that this legislated ‘interaction’ is in my best interest.

And so… Michelle and I stand on the corner together, waiting for the crosswalk signal to change.

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