Getting a ticket for simply crossing the road seems like an irritating, yet benign way of encouraging pedestrians to avoid being hit by a car. And yet the impetus behind these fines may surprise you. The truth is that in the 1920s a propaganda campaign run by the motor industry aimed to shift the blame in automobile accidents from cars to people to keep car sales booming.
The California Vehicle Code states: “No pedestrian shall start crossing in direction of a flashing or steady “DON’T WALK” or upraised hand symbol.” It also forbids crossing between controlled intersections, or “jaywalking”.
Late last year, police began a concerted effort to enforce the rules in central Los Angeles. Pedestrians had been “impeding traffic and causing too many accidents and deaths”, one traffic police official said. Fines range from $190-$250 (£115-£152).
Then in New York officials responded to several pedestrian deaths last month by issuing a flurry of tickets for jaywalking. The campaign quickly ran into controversy when an 84-year-old Chinese immigrant who had been stopped for jaywalking suffered a gash to his head during an altercation with the police.
Enforcement of anti-jaywalking laws in the US is sporadic, often only triggered by repeated complaints from drivers about pedestrian behaviour in a particular place. But jaywalking remains illegal across the country, and has been for many decades.
The first known reference to it dates to December 1913, says Peter Norton, a history professor at the University of Virginia and author of Fighting Traffic - The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. That month a department store in Syracuse hired a Santa Claus who stood on the street with a megaphone, bellowing at people who didn’t cross properly and calling them jaywalkers.