A pedestrian crosses the street near the May Co. building at the intersection… (Los Angeles Times )
A crackdown on jaywalking has stirred up a fierce debate over when you can and cannot cross the street in Los Angeles.
A Downtown News story last week reported that Los Angeles police officers have been ticketing jaywalkers in the city's historic core and the financial district. Penalties range from a hefty $190 to an even heftier $250. "We're heavily enforcing pedestrian violations because they're impeding traffic and causing too many accidents and deaths," Lt. Lydia Leos told the newspaper.
Fair enough. Pedestrians, like drivers, can be careless — or reckless — and that can be a real safety problem. But what's causing controversy is that the Los Angeles Police Department is enforcing the letter of the law and ticketing walkers who step into the street during the "countdown."
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The countdown begins when the "hand" on the signal switches from white to a blinking red and the timer starts ticking down toward zero. It seems that California law says you're not allowed to set foot in the street once the "Don't Walk" signal or the red hand begins flashing, even if there is still plenty of time on the countdown.
Well, who knew that? Many pedestrians assume — wrongly, it turns out — that the countdown is designed to tell you how much time you have to clear the intersection so you can make an informed decision on whether to cross the street or wait. "Fifteen seconds? I can make it if I walk fast." "Five seconds? I'll wait until the next cycle."
Michael Bloomberg — the outgoing mayor of New York, where jaywalking is practically a civic right — said the countdown signals are designed to give people information and "hopefully most of them will make intelligent decisions." But in California the countdown is not about making an intelligent decision. There's no decision to be made: If you are still on the sidewalk when the countdown begins, you may not cross, according to the law.
Several studies show that when there is a countdown, pedestrians are more likely to step into the street than if there is merely a flashing red hand signal. In other words, illegal activity goes up. But the studies also show that countdowns significantly reduce the number of pedestrians hit by cars.
Perhaps it's time for some clarification and some common sense. Shouldn't the law target people who behave recklessly, such as those who dash across the street on a solid red or who cross mid-block when there is a crosswalk nearby, or who fail to get to the other side of the street before the light turns red? A fine of $250 is a big penalty for stepping off the curb when you're being told you still have 16 or 22 or 30 seconds, and when you can clearly make it across in time.