Jaywalkers Can't Abide Law Of Common Sense

Crime Scenes

July 15, 2009|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Men do it. Women do it. School kids do it. Parents with children in tow do it. Elderly women do it. Lawyers do it. Tourists do it.

In all likelihood, if you're in Baltimore, visiting or living here, you do it, too.

Jaywalk.

It's dangerous, like street-corner Russian roulette. It's illegal, at least for half the day. But cops don't seem to consistently enforce the regulation, and the stern-looking, whistle-blowing traffic officers assigned to the Transportation Department are only authorized to write tickets for offenses committed on wheels. So yes, you can jaywalk in front of them, as many people brazenly do, and you might get a lecture but you won't get a fine.

Jaywalking is perhaps the most committed crime and most ignored law on Baltimore's books, turning streets into a bumper-car-style obstacle course, metal vs. flesh, bad drivers squaring off against bad walkers, daring each other in a giant game of chicken played on the city's grid.

Robert Bowman and Nick Crivella blew past a no-walk signal at lunchtime Monday, walking south on Calvert at Lombard. They joined a dozen others, including a woman pushing a baby carriage and a city worker dragging a garbage can.

"We live in a fast-paced world," said Crivilla, a 28-year-old attorney sipping iced coffee through a straw.

Fellow attorney Bowman, exhibiting true lawyerly hubris, expressed annoyance with the very behavior he had just performed. "I've had a person walk into the side of my car when I was at a red light."

The difference between him and the other guy? Bowman said he waited for traffic to ease, exhibiting proper jaywalking etiquette: "No cars were coming, we might as well cross."

An example of improper etiquette, as explained by Bowman: "Of course some yahoo will cross right in front of you against a light, and he'll look at you like you're the idiot."

Jaywalking seems to be an issue better governed by social mores than by criminal law. In some cities, such Milwaukee, where German heritage demands strict adherence to rules and order, pedestrians out at 3 a.m. on a deserted street will patiently wait for the light to change before crossing. Milwaukee cops ticket - they even cited the local prosecutor once - but it's the looks from fellow citizens that make would-be jaywalkers think twice.

Of course, pedestrians shouldn't get all the blame for Baltimore's free-for-all. Drivers are notorious for blocking intersections and crosswalks, forcing legal street-crossers to meander through stalled traffic. And drivers making right turns too often fail to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks.

Strangely written city laws may be part of the problem: Article 13, Section 16-39 of the city code states: "Offense: Entering roadway against 'Don't Walk' signal between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. ... Penalty: $100."

So walking against a "Don't Walk" signal is legal after 7 p.m. and before 7 a.m.?

"It's news to me," said Baltimore City Solicitor George A. Nilson, who read the code while on the phone with a reporter to ensure it was being interpreted correctly. "I'm scratching my head," he said after a pause that include muffled laughter. "It's certainly not a constitutional issue. The City Council is free to have some laws enforced in the daytime only."

His guess is that lawmakers once thought the law should only apply when traffic is heaviest. That makes 'Don't Walk' signs nothing more than polite suggestions 12 hours a day and raises the question: Who is at fault if a driver speeding through a green light hits a pedestrian crossing against a 'Don't Walk' signal at 7:03 p.m.?

Here, civil law makes more sense than its criminal cousin.

"Common law in the state of Maryland will trump the city code, and that says that a person entering a roadway where vehicles have a green light, the pedestrians have a responsibility to make sure it's clear and safe for them to cross the street," said defense attorney Steven Silverman, who unlike other lawyers was not jaywalking when interviewed for this article.

"Negligence," Silverman said, "is all about duty."

Indeed. A duty for both those operating a car and their feet to be courteous.

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