Jaywalking was invented by auto industry groups in the 1920s

The Invention of Jaywalking

It’s hard to imagine America without cars. Today, almost every family has one. Things as simple as going to the store, going to school, and commuting to work are all but impossible without a car in many places. But about 100 years ago, cars were a rarity.

Prior to the 1920s, streets were considered public spaces. Vendors hawked their wares in them from tables and carts, horse-drawn vehicles clopped up and down them, and pedestrians milled about freely. As cars began to make their appearance on city streets, it was generally understood that it was their responsibility to watch out for pedestrians, not the other way around.

When an automobile hit a pedestrian—as often happened in those early days—the public response was outrage. Cars were seen as interlopers in streets that were considered the domain of pedestrians, and newspapers typically put the blame on drivers when reporting on pedestrian injuries and deaths. Anti-car groups advocated for governors that would limit the speed of automobiles to help make streets safer. The city of Cincinnati OH even attempted a ballot initiative to ban cars without governors from the city.

Auto industry groups responded with a campaign to legally redefine the streets, giving cars the right of way and restricting pedestrians. They offered a service that provided local newspapers with prewritten accounts of traffic accidents, which painted pedestrians as the ones in the wrong. They staged safety campaigns teaching children to stay out of the streets, and they lobbied for cities to pass new laws to control pedestrians.

Los Angeles adopted strict traffic laws for pedestrians in 1925, and these laws were used as the basis of the federal government’s 1928 Model Municipal Traffic Ordinance. This ordinance said pedestrians could only cross the street at crosswalks and at right angles.

In order to train the public to comply with this new way of seeing the streets, auto industry groups relied heavily on public shaming. Tactics included mounting safety campaigns with unruly pedestrians dressed as clowns, encouraging police to whistle and shout at pedestrians, and carrying women back to the sidewalk if they stepped into the street.

The very name “jaywalking” was part of this campaign of shame. During the 1920s, a “jay” was a rube or a hick. So when auto groups called pedestrians who strayed from sidewalks “jaywalkers,” it was quite insulting.

Today, pedestrian accidents are still greeted with outrage in many cases, especially considering that many pedestrian accidents are caused by inattentive drivers. However, we now recognize that pedestrians can be to blame for accidents as well—particularly when they violate the rules of the road and commit the offense of jaywalking, as established way back in the 1920s by those auto industry groups.

If you have been injured in a pedestrian accident, it is imperative that you hire a skilled traffic accident attorney who can help you establish who caused your accident and who is liable for your damages. At The Law Offices of Larry H. Parker, we specialize in all kinds of traffic accident cases and we will fight for you. Call us at 800-333-0000 for a free consultation.