Let Inga Tell You: Does new law grant freedom to walk, or freedom to cause chaos?

Figure walking

Every once in awhile, I truly despair of lawmakers. A new state law decriminalizing jaywalking that went into effect Jan. 1 comes under that category.

On Jan. 2 as I was driving through downtown La Jolla, people were literally walking in front of my car. It was like, “Woo-hee! We don’t even have to look both ways anymore!” It seemed as if they were going to jaywalk just because they could.

If those people knew how old I am and that my reflexes are failing — never mind that my 2005 Corolla doesn’t have one of those automatic stop features — they might have reconsidered.

The new law, called the Freedom to Walk Act, allows a “reasonably careful person” (is that an oxymoron?) to cross without being in a crosswalk. If there are any reasonably careful persons crossing the street in San Diego, especially in the summer when we’re chock full of tourists, I don’t know who they are. One can’t help but notice that even before this law, summer tourists at a beach resort seem to have beamed themselves to a parallel universe where traffic laws do not apply.

At La Jolla Shores, for example, beach-chair-laden visitors wander at will across busy streets against the light in front of oncoming cars. They look stunned to hear the screech of tires, a blank look crossing their puzzled faces as they attempt to process what that annoying sound might have been (their imminent death).

Curious to know what inspired a law that to me seems like a massive threat to public safety, I learned that it was sponsored by California Assembly member Phil Ting on the basis that jaywalking tickets were disproportionately given to lower-income individuals and people of color who cannot afford to pay the jaywalking fine. His data came from the California Racial and Identity Profiling Act, which indicated that Black individuals in California were 4½ times more likely than White Californians to be stopped by law enforcement officials for jaywalking.

I agree that’s a bad thing.

As Mr. Ting puts it, “It should not be a criminal offense to safely cross the street.” Couldn’t agree more with that, too. It’s the “safely” part I’m having trouble with.

As of Jan. 1, the only time law enforcement officials will be able to write a ticket for jaywalking is when the individual causes an “immediate danger of a collision.”

There was nothing “safely” about the people walking in front of my car Jan. 2. Collisions were very much imminent. Seriously, I was terrified.

Will pedestrian deaths skyrocket with this new law? Actually, that’s exactly what happened when automobiles became prominent in New York City in the 1920s. The victims were disproportionately old folks and kids. The term “jaywalker,” originally considered an offensive term and allegedly promoted by the then-fledgling auto industry, referred to someone from the sticks who didn’t know how to walk in a city.

Still, it wasn’t until 1958 that a New York anti-jaywalking law was finally introduced, which, as those of us who are former New Yorkers can attest, was instantly and roundly ignored.

In 2020, a New York councilman tried to introduce a proposal to decriminalize jaywalking by changing the law’s language to “advise” pedestrians to use crosswalks and wait for the light when crossing the street. I nearly fell out of my chair laughing.

Like Proposition 47, will this be a law that fixes one problem only to create a bigger one? Prop. 47 increased the amount from $400 to $950 for which theft can be prosecuted as a felony. It’s not true that thefts under $950 (now misdemeanors) are no longer prosecuted. It just seems that way. Certainly the people stealing from Walmarts and CVSes seem to think so.

Laws against pedestrian free-for-alls were huge safety protections, in my view. Sometimes people have to be protected from their own idiocy, which is to say, walking out in the middle of the street glued to a cellphone.

Personally, I like to think of this Freedom to be Mowed Down in the Middle of the Street legislation as a kind of natural selection. The Serengeti has its way of culling its population. This may be ours.

Before Jan. 1, the big money was in getting hit in a crosswalk by a Mercedes. Your kids would be set for life. (You, not so much.) But what happens when you knock over, midblock, one of those “reasonably careful” people who were jaywalking at least theoretically “safely”? And if there’s a cellphone next to the body? Nope, no money in it.

It’s too early yet to know the full ramifications of allowing people to wander at will across streets. I would have liked to see other solutions (assuming there were some) to harassing minorities who jaywalked. But henceforth, I’m driving 5 mph in La Jolla.

Inga’s lighthearted looks at life appear regularly in the La Jolla Light. Reach her at ◆