Jaywalkers weave primrose path across city streets

August 11, 1991|By Doug Birch

It's a sun-splashed morning in front of the Clarence Mitchell courthouse, and there's anarchy in the streets of Baltimore.

In the course of a half-hour, scores of pedestrians amble, stroll and sprint across Calvert and East Fayette streets, defying a red signal or crossing in the middle of the block -- illegal maneuvers that could cost them fines of up to $40 each.

William Marker, 40, of Baltimore joined a gang of about eight people hustling across Calvert Street against the light on a recent morning. Like most walkers, he said, he doesn't regard the upright red hand that serves as the city's "Don't walk" signal as an explicit order.

"I view it more as a guide," he said. "It's some sort of indication of traffic conditions."

In Baltimore, as in most cities in the Northeast, jaywalking and ignoring signals are technically illegal but seem an accepted part of the street culture.

City police say they generally tolerate the antics of strollers and will only issue warnings or a rare ticket at baseball games, when huge crowds cross 33rd Street and nearby avenues, or where there is a pattern of complaints.

"We have not had a big enforcement push because we don't see it as a major problem in the city," said Capt. James Durner, head of the city's traffic investigation unit.

Most pedestrian injuries, he said, involve children, people who are drunk and elderly people who are slow to react to oncoming traffic.

"How do you enforce something where a child runs out between parked cars?" he asked.

Jane Levine, a 32-year-old downtown resident, pumped her arms and shot across upper St. Paul Place -- obeying the signal -- in her chrome wheelchair one recent afternoon. Her 6-year-old daughter, Janeal Mullen, ran to keep up.

She is cautious and respects the law when she crosses the street. But motorists don't always respect her rights.

In some residential neighbor hoods, she said, swooping her arms to suggest a speeding car, "you could have all the right of way in the world, and they'll move on you." Sometimes drivers scream at her to hurry along.

One driver, she recalled, yelled, " 'Hey, you cripple! Cripple a--! You're taking too long.' They talk to me like that."

Captain Durner said that many Baltimore drivers, when making right and left turns at an intersection, will often cut off or brush past a pedestrian crossing in a crosswalk. The drivers are supposed to stop.

"I think people don't realize that it is the law that they're supposed to yield to someone in an intersection, whether they're at a signal or not," he said.

The clash between drivers and pedestrians may grow out of what seems to be the quicker pace of life in bigger, older cities. (One study showed that pedestrians in Manhattan travel faster than 350 feet per minute, compared with 250 feet per minute for residents of some smaller cities.)

A lean, athletic Harry Williams, 22, dashed across Calvert Street, threading his way through heavy traffic. "It takes too long for the light to change," he explained.

But Baltimoreans do not seem to walk, as do New Yorkers, with malice aforethought -- what urban planner and pedestrian expert William H. Whyte has called an attitude of "make way for me or kill me."

And it's probably a good thing. While New York has about 10 times Baltimore's population, it has about 30 times the number of pedestrian deaths annually.

One of Baltimore's more patient pedestrians is Thomas Grizzard of Rodgers Forge, who takes the bus downtown every day, then walks about a mile to work for T. Rowe Price on East Pratt Street. Mr. Grizzard confessed that he jaywalked "by necessity" when he lived in Manhattan. But he said Baltimore drivers frequently run red lights, so he's sworn off unauthorized perambulations. "Jaywalk? I wouldn't ever do that here," he said.

Although most city walkers seem far more aggressive, the higher speeds in less-congested areas translate into more pedestrian injuries.

So Baltimore County police appear far more worried about pedestrian violations. Using a $2,000 federal highway safety grant, traffic safety officers began May 1 to survey one of the county's most dangerous stretches of roadway, York Road from Towson south to the city line.

Over the past three years, 61 pedestrian accidents have occurred on that stretch of road. None was fatal, but almost all resulted in injuries.

What did the survey find? "Pretty much wherever they wanted to cross, they did," said Lt. Michael Stelmack of the county police.

Most of the accidents occurred near the library and county government buildings in Towson, near Towson State University and near the shopping district by the York Road Giant supermarket, which is just north of the city line. Most occurred at midday, on Mondays and Fridays.

At those locations, county police have handed out more than 5,000 safety fliers to pedestrians who ignore the light and more than 550 warning tickets to motorists who don't yield when turning.

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