Donna Tavano: Jest Talkin’ Jaywalkin’

It really is almost summer. As much as we relish its positive virtues, we dread the perils: endless streams of traffic and never-ending supermarket register lines. Live here for a few years, you learn how to cope; right turns only, and shop early morning or late at night. We’ve traded constant winter road construction for seemingly suicidal clusters of colorfully clad cyclists.

But there is one road hazard over which we have little control—pedestrians. They pop up everywhere and anywhere, wearing Harry Potter Invisibility Cloaks until they appear magically in front of our moving cars, in parking lots, and more commonly on the main streets of our towns and villages. There is a name for them: jaywalkers, and they fit various profiles.

There’s the Terrifying Toddler, the tiny child, sometimes unattended, other times escaping its parents, and in a nanosecond running into traffic right before our hysterical eyes. Related to that, we have the Kamikaze Kid, a slightly older soul whose eyes only focus on the beach/soccer/foot/base or basketball blithely bouncing its way under our skittish tires. The Entitled Elite, though out to impress everyone, impress only themselves. Heeding no signs or warnings, they consider themselves “above the law,” not understanding their ignorance may put them “below the ground” before they cross the street. The AA member—Arrogant and Angry—is a volatile sort, yelling and gesturing toward anyone operating a vehicle, claiming it is too loud, fast, slow. Oddly this type is the most likely to engage in road rage when they are driving on the highway.

The Oblivious Ogler is a hapless case, endlessly pointing at shop windows, small dogs or attractive scantily clad women. A subset of this character is the Death Defying Device Demon, who, while texting walks into street signs, falls off curbs and creates hell on wheels for all vehicle traffic. The Dart and Dash Duo is a couple so enthused by a half price oyster sign or possible Tom Brady sighting that they risk certain death by catapulting themselves at mach speed, airborne, in front of your car to cross the road. Finally, the Drunken Stumblebums appear both day and night, lurching and bumbling on, and mostly off, the sidewalk on a fruitless search for their friends, who are still sitting at the bar they just left. Also hazardous, but not technically pedestrians, are bikes, scooters, skateboards, Segways and the rare, but concerning, clown on a unicycle, all of whom can put the motoring public at risk with their swerving and swaying around parked cars into traffic.

So, these jaywalkers, who ignore crosswalks and vault from between parked cars to sprint across the road, are ubiquitous and timeless. The word has nothing to do with the shape of the letter “J.” It was first coined around 1900, referring to horse-drawn carriages and then early motorists who refused to stay on their own side of the road. They were cursed at with the word jaydrivers. It was midwestern slang for an idiot so ignorant they couldn’t cross the road at a safe place—an empty headed chatterbox gawking at the sights like a blue jay. It was a deeply derogatory slur employed from Kansa City to Albuquerque to New York City.

As early autos were resented and feared when they took over the roads, killing many pedestrians, the people of privilege who owned them formed auto clubs and developed campaigns to warn the mainly blue collar pedestrian to stay off the road, basically to get the pressure off themselves. Packard Motor Co. constructed tombstones with Mr. J. Walker on them. By 1937, WPA art projects created posters warning folks not to be a jaywalker.

So, here we are on little Cape Cod, no big city, mainly little villages, overloaded for a few months a year with moving cars and the walking public. How do we keep everybody safe? Drivers need to laser focus on crosswalks and get their peripheral vision checked, because, yes, distracted, compromised, impatient tourists will spring out from nowhere. Towns need to move crosswalks to locations before sidewalk utility poles so the patient people waiting to cross aren’t obscured by the poles. Some children in a Massachusetts town just made a suggestion their town is implementing: They are repainting their crosswalks in 3-D. Iceland did it. Go Iceland! They now resemble white blocks on the road so cars slow down to avoid what might be an obstacle. Worth a try! British kids are taught a Green Cross Code from childhood—“Stop, Look and Listen”—and while jaywalking is not illegal there, like most places in the U.S., they have proportionally fewer pedestrian fatalities.

So, when you’re driving through the congested main thoroughfares of our towns this summer and feel compelled to scream out “jaywalker—simpleton!” when you witness a doltish pedestrian act, remember the offensive jeer was originally “jaydriver” and consider you just might be the pot calling the kettle black.