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In Las Vegas, pedestrians who get hit by a driver while crossing one of the city’s nine-lane intersections are reportedly apt to be sent to traffic school for pedestrians to avoid paying a $250 jaywalking fine. A typical Las Vegas intersection is nine lanes long, and a standard street is 120 feet at minimum. Wide lanes make drivers more comfortable speeding.
And despite recent infrastructure improvements in Clark County, which includes the Las Vegas metro area, “we still kill a stupid amount of pedestrians,” Erin Breen, traffic safety coalition coordinator at the University of Nevada, reportedly told The 74. Clark County reportedly recorded 78 pedestrian deaths in 2017— the highest in county history.
Nevada is ranked 11 in pedestrian fatalities, according to a report by Smart Growth America. California, for its part, ranked 16 in the same list.
As Breen noted, this pedestrian-unfriendly environment exacerbates inequality. In the Las Vegas metro, like in Los Angeles, the people most likely to walk as a primary mode of transportation tend to be low-income. And in a state where traffic infractions are considered misdemeanors, a jaywalking violation can cost nearly $250 in fines and could even land you in jail. Breen said that because of this, handing people tickets is basically handing them a warrant for their arrest.
That’s why Breen and Laura Gryder, project director at the UNLV School of Medicine, created PedSAFE, an organization that teaches pedestrian safety classes. The program, previously held in person and now online because of the pandemic, allows people to dismiss pedestrian-related citations and fines — as a walker or driver — by sitting in a three-hour educational course. Breen teaches these classes herself. At the end, in addition to having their pedestrian tickets dismissed, participants receive reflective vests and slap bands. More than 2,800 people have graduated from the course since 2017.
In the article by The 74, they tell the story of Michelle Mihalik, a legally blind woman who was hit by a car in 2018. After a night with friends at a Las Vegas casino, Mihalik was dropped off in an area where no public transportation was available. Because of this, she decided to walk home alone along the side of the road, which didn’t have a sidewalk. Next thing she knew, she was in the hospital with six pelvic fractures. A vehicle had struck her from behind, and she didn’t wake up until the following morning.
After Mihalik’s accident, her attorney and the driver ended up settling the case. As part of the settlement, Mihalik was required to attend the PedSAFE pedestrian safety course. She said she was unsure if the driver who hit her was ordered to take the course too, and placed part of the blame on herself for having worn all black at the time of her accident.
Angie Schmitt, former national editor at Streetsblog and author of Right of Way: Race, Class and the Silent Crisis of Pedestrian Deaths in America, reportedly said programs like PedSAFE are useful for reducing fines, but in general, she doesn’t see the value in enforcing jaywalking laws. “[Local governments] are punishing the individual for a systemic problem,” Schmitt said. Enforcement is often racially biased, and many people jaywalk because streets don’t have accessible crosswalks in the first place.
In California, the “Freedom to Walk Act” aims to eliminate jaywalking laws and make it legal for pedestrians to make mid-block crossings and cross against traffic lights when it is safe. The legislation, which was introduced by Phil Ting (D-San Francisco, San Mateo) passed the California Assembly Transportation Committee and is now headed to the floor of the Assembly for final passage before heading to the Senate. If approved by the legislature and signed by the governor, California would join Virginia in decriminalizing jaywalking.
Like much of the rest of the country, California citations for jaywalking are disproportionately issued to Black people. Policing this practice and other minor traffic infractions provides opportunities for biased and pretextual policing. Decriminalizing jaywalking would reportedly remove one unjust burden from low-income California residents, who can least afford to pay the fines and who are more likely to live in neighborhoods that lack infrastructure for safe crossings. The bill also calls for the elimination of all fines and fees that come with jaywalking.