What is Jaywalking?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

The term jaywalking actually covers a multitude of pedestrian infractions, mostly involving a failure to cross city streets at designated intersections or crosswalks. It can be considered a misdemeanor if a police officer considers the pedestrian's actions to be a deliberate violation of an existing ordinance. Otherwise, the officer may choose to issue a stern warning against future infractions. The fine for a ticket can be surprisingly substantial, similar to misdemeanor moving violations for drivers.

Jaywalkers cross intersections in defiance of the signal.
Jaywalkers cross intersections in defiance of the signal.

Jaywalking can be a very hazardous practice for pedestrians and drivers alike. Drivers may anticipate other drivers returning to their parked vehicles, but they may not be prepared for pedestrians suddenly crossing the street between those parked cars. Even if the traffic conditions are slow in one direction of traffic, a jaywalker may find himself or herself trapped in the middle of the street when vehicles appear in the opposite lane.

If a police officer catches you jaywalking, you may get cited.
If a police officer catches you jaywalking, you may get cited.

Another danger inherent is a sudden change in a pedestrian's direction. Intersections with crosswalks are designed to allow pedestrian traffic to cross laterally, not diagonally. Vehicle traffic still flows legally in the opposing direction, but some pedestrians choose to cross diagonally against traffic as an illegal time saver. Crossing the street against the flow of traffic or changing directions in midstream are perhaps the most flagrant violations of jaywalking ordinances.

The origin of the term is said to coincide with the arrival of the "horseless carriage" around the turn of the 20th century. The word "jay" had several different connotations at the time, but the one which seemed to describe the dangerous practice best implied an unsophisticated rube. Crossing the street haphazardly or ignoring other pedestrian rules in a large city would be considered typical behavior for an uneducated "jay." Therefore, many early ordinances adopted this slang term to describe the violation itself. Though the derisive slang term fell out of favor decades ago, the name stuck to describe the ill-advised practice of crossing a street between intersections.

Jaywalking may refer to a person's failure to cross a city street at a designated intersection or crosswalk.
Jaywalking may refer to a person's failure to cross a city street at a designated intersection or crosswalk.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


In my country, there is no such thing as jay walking. Since few motorists acknowledge zebra crossings, we don't either. Is jaywalking coming out from two parked cars without warning?


If a person is dumb enough to try to cross with heavy traffic, it's their own stupidity.


There are “no jaywalking” signs on the street where I work, but still, it is so tempting to cross exactly where I want to sometimes. It's also tempting to cross diagonally to save time.

I park on the same side of the street as my office whenever I can so that I don't have to cross it at all. When I have to park on the opposite side, I really struggle to obey the law.


She cannot be fined for crossing a street corner where there isn't a crosswalk. Jaywalking is not crossing a street where there is no crosswalk. Jaywalking is considered crossing or walking in the street or road unlawfully or without regard for approaching traffic.


I live in a college town, and we have a big jaywalking problem, both on and off campus. Students are the ones who cause the problem.

They think that because they have the right of way on campus to cross the street, they have it everywhere. Several students have been hit because they didn't even bother to look before crossing the street.

The situation is the same whether or not they are using a crosswalk. I've seen several kids on phones or jogging who just run right out in front of cars.

The sad thing is that the drivers are expected to slam on the brakes. We might not be at fault for hitting someone, but it wouldn't matter to the authorities.


If I'm at a crosswalk that doesn't have one of those walk/don't walk signs, then I assume it's okay to cross whenever there's nothing coming. If it does have one of these signs, I always wait until it says I can go. I'm not sure what the penalties for jaywalking are in my town, but I don't want to find out.


@anon89025: So do I. The town where I work isn't huge, so people jaywalk all the time there.

Even though there are several crosswalks on one street, they are often so far apart that going to one will put you way out of the way that you wanted to go. So, everyone just looks both ways and runs across wherever.

I've never known an officer in our town to give anyone a ticket for jaywalking. If our town ever grows much, this might change, but for now, I doubt anyone gets fined.


I always thought it referred to behaving like the bird, a Jay, which struts around in an arrogant fashion out in the open with total disregard for any other birds around, acting like it owns the place and can do what it likes.

Dennis Byers

I was just hemmed up by a police officer for walking across the street from where I worked. although he didn't give me a ticket he did threaten to take me to jail the next time he saw me doing this. Rookies out to make a name for themselves.


we shouldn't fine jaywalkers. instead we should let natural selection get rid of them.


I jaywalk all the time. I don't have time to go to the corner of the street just to walk on the cross walk.


I understand the origin of "jaywalking" as this: there used to be people who drank sterno (canned alcohol for cooking)and when they were intoxicated by this brain-damaging form of alcohol.they would stagger, walk in a zig-zag,when they walked. the original fines were for what they called "jake-walking".in time, extended to crossing in middle of a block, became "jaywalking" jakewalkers unite!


In most of the European countries, you can cross a road if there are no crosswalks within the next 450'.


anon12522-I can sympathize with the mother and her little ones, but the law is there for a reason. In Honolulu for example, in the past the jaywalking rules were not strictly enforced, or maybe they did not even exist.

Then one year the number of pedestrian fatalities increased to an alarming level. The law is being enforced now, and jaywalkers can look into slightly less than $100 ticket.

That is not so bad in comparison to some cities who seem to take jaywalking much more seriously. Take Salt Lake city for example, jaywalk there and you might have to pay a very steep fine, all the way up to $750.


So you have a mother with 3 young kids who has ridden the bus for an hour and waited at the clinic for hours to get medical treatment who gets off the bus across from her apartment in 100 degree temperature and is forced to walk 4 or 5 blocks to find a crosswalk so she won't be ticketed for jaywalking?

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