Weird History Turns Out Jaywalking Is A Fake Crime Designed By The Car Industry To Make More People Drive  

Cleo Egnal
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The history of jaywalking as a crime is a bit more complicated and a lot more nefarious than you might think. At the turn of the 20th century, pedestrians ruled the roadway. Children played in the middle of the street, vendors pushed their carts next to horses pulling carriages, and everyone was free to roam where and when they pleased. However, the advent of cars brought red lights, yellow lights, and green lights – and the end of pedestrian freedom. 

Using money, clever marketing campaigns (which had a lot to do with why we called it 'jaywalking'), and stories about dead children, car companies were able to pressure cities into putting the onus on pedestrians to not get hit, rather than on drivers for not running over pedestrians. If this list gets you thinking that criminalizing jaywalking is dumb, just remember: it is still illegal, and cars still rule the roads.

And this wasn't the only conspiratorial push that the auto industry masterminded to get more people liking and purchasing cars. The General Motors Streetcar thickens the nefarious plot.

The Use Of The Term Jaywalking As Slang For Pedestrians Dates Back To The 1920s


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Photo: Isadore Posoff, WPA/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The first known reference to the term jaywalking dates back to a 1909 Chicago Tribune article, in which chauffeurs lamented "that their ‘joy riding’ would harm nobody if there were not so much jay walking."

However, the term really came into popular use in 1913 Syracuse, NY, when a department store hired a Santa Claus to stand on the sidewalk and ring his bell to chastise what he called 'jaywalkers.'

The word 'jay' at that time was mid-Western slang for, basically, an idiot. In fact, the word was first used to describe someone who got in the way of pedestrians, not cars. A jay was:

"Someone from the countryside who goes to the city and is so dazzled by the lights and the show windows that they keep stopping and getting in the way of other pedestrians."  

By the 1920s, 'jaywalking' was used as a way to ridicule pedestrians who dared walk among automobiles. 

Laws Against Jaywalking Were First Implemented After The Deaths of 250,000 Children


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Photo: 1924 New York Times Cover/via Vox/Fair use

One of the reasons cars were so unpopular was because of how many people were killed by drivers – and not just people, but children. By the end of the 1920s, drivers had taken the lives of 250,000 people, 60% of whom were children under the age of nine. People hated cars.

The American Automobile Association (AAA) fought the backlash against drivers by switching the narrative. They implemented safety programs in schools that warned children against crossing the street outside of designated areas. Slowly, through these sorts of programs and a lot of public ridicule, jaywalkers became the problem instead of drivers, and by the end of the 1930s, public grievances against cars and drivers were nearly nonexistent. 

Jay 'Drivers' Existed Before Jaywalkers — Because People Hated Cars


Before the automotive industry succeeded in making cars an American city staple, people were really against the dangerous interlopers that killed their children and their elderly. Cars were seen as luxury vehicles, like yachts: playthings for the rich and frivolities that had no place claiming the lives of innocent citizens. However, the harder the car industry worked to make pedestrians seem like the problem, the more people began to believe cars were the way of the future. Shifting the blame from driver to pedestrian was key in changing the narrative about cars and their place on American roadways.   

Car Companies Put Their Money Where Their Mouths Were – And Won Over Public Allegiance


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Photo: Chicago Tribune/via Forgotten Chicago/Fair use

In the early 1920s, anti-car sentiment was incredibly high. Car manufacturers and drivers alike feared for the future of their community – what they called "motordom." That's when Charles Hayes, the president of the Chicago Motor Club, realized that they needed to change the narrative from placing blame on drivers to placing blame on pedestrians. 

After newspapers began receiving money from car companies placing ads, they decided to go along with the narrative shift to increase their income. By putting money in the pockets of the media, car companies were able to flourish. People soon began believing that pedestrians who didn't follow the rules were the problem and not those driving the cars. It was a paradigm shift from the early part of the century, when cars were seen as out of place on the roads.