Jaywalking: How the Car Industry Criminalized Pedestrians

Jaywalking is a crime most of us know first-hand. After all, we know that this reckless behavior is dangerous and puts us at risk getting hit by a car. Little do we know that roughly over a century ago, cars were not common and the street was a pedestrian domain. This is the story of how the automobile industry criminalized pedestrians and banished them from the streets.

Cars didn’t just drop from the heaven’s skies and found a following over night. While most of us cannot think of a reality without the existence of cars, back then, at the turn of the 19th century, it was normal to walk everywhere or take a horse carriage if you were wealthy. There were public transportation measures like railroads and cable cars until, eventually, the first mass-produced car came along.

The First Cars: Killing Machines of the Devil

While Henry Ford did not invent the automobile or the idea of an assembly chain, he did streamline the process of producing cars to a point where the car was an affordable private transportation system. The idea of small steam-operated transportation machines was lingering around for decades at this point already. As with every technology, it is the affordability and mass production that makes the adoption of it possible. The problem was that cars were still an alien thing at this point. They intruded the streets much to the dislike of most pedestrians.

You see, streets were places bustling with life. Markets, shops, the occasional horse cart and countless pedestrians going about their day. The introduction of the car and the adaption of it by an increasing number of people posed a threat to pedestrians. Between 1913 and 1923, fatalities involving car accidents almost quadrupled in the US from under 4,000 to over 15,000 per year.

Cars where the intruding force on the streets here, so all of those deaths got pinned on automobile user, which threatened the community and development of this most lucrative endeavor of the automobile industry. People signed petitions in favor of lower speed limits for these cars, which scared car sellers and producers. The dream of the car was threatened to end as soon as it started to pick up. Luckily, even back then, the American automobile industry knew just what to do – lobbying.

Jaywalking: Cars are Good, Pedestrians are Bad

For cars to take off, it was necessary to

  1. Create space for them.
  2. Repair their image.

The automobile industry did both in one sweep by claiming the street for themselves and launched extensive efforts to coin the term Jaywalking – a new artificial crime. The word did not exist before. At least not to this extent. It was an invention to effectively blame pedestrians walking on streets, although that’s where they’ve always been. This got accompanied by huge marketing campaigns to influence press reporting on car accidents, basically blaming pedestrians of unmindful stepping in front of vehicles. Up to that point, car owners were responsible for any accident and the aftermath.

Within a couple of years, the automobile industry was able to set up the image that “streets were for cars”, forcing pedestrians off them and effectively educating them to do as they please and make room for cars. What seems like a completely alien thing to do, it worked. Kids in school got taught how bad jaywalking was while actors staged jaywalking crimes in funny clothes to embrace the image of jaywalking being a stupid and shameful thing to do. Sooner or later people started to buy and adapt to it.

Lobbying – A Common Practice, Not Just in the Automobile Industry

In fact, what the automobile industry did back then is not too strange. Considering that the story of corporate America reads the same on repeat – lobbying all over the place. Being it tobacco or guns, it’s always similar tactics to divert and shame. Lobbyists are going all out to preserve and eventual support profit.

The fact that Jaywalking is still a crime to this day means that it’s a highly effective method too. We can’t think of other ways to use streets than for cars. They eventually were able to strive and become the heart of American freedom.

It does make you wonder, what would have happened if cars never took off the way they did?

About Andreas Salmen

Born and raised in Germany, learned a job in IT and Business and ultimately decided that this wasn't exactly where my life was going to end. Left everything behind to become a writing backpacker instead. The world's crumbling away anyway so why not write about it and get a few good Instagram pics on the way, am I right?

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