LOUIS, a retired policeman, strolls across 43rd Street, ignoring the "Don't Walk" sign.
Informed that New York is considering cracking down on such "jaywalking," he chuckles. "It's a waste of time and energy," he says.
Jaywalking seems a virtual right in most cities. There are exceptions, of course, such as Los Angeles, where tickets for such indiscretions are dispensed as liberally as tanning oil.
But New Yorkers, true to style, seem to take pride in a degree of pedestrian anarchy. Jaywalking, after all, is just another way to maximize time: Why stand on a corner waiting for a light change when business beckons? Why be late for a Broadway show that does not seat latecomers? Just sprint in front of that bus.
Indeed, the city's intersections, not to mention the middle of blocks, often resemble a study in chaos. Pedestrians dart between cars and trucks, which are often frozen in traffic. Pedestrians sometimes get trapped in the middle of avenues and casually watch traffic speed around them. "It's the only way to get around," says Kathy, a banker, who admits she regularly flits across the streets.
The city, however, may try to stem this illegal flow. Last month the City Council held hearings on pedestrian safety measures, which include a proposal to toughen the penalty for jaywalking to a minimum of $25 and a maximum of $50. The current fine is usually $2, if it is imposed at all. Through August, the city had only handed out 19 tickets for jaywalking.
At its hearing, the Council was surprised to find out that the city considers jaywalking a violation only if it takes place at an intersection. Darting through traffic in the middle of a block is not considered a violation even though it is dangerous.
The city's Department of Transportation (DOT), in the middle of an overall study on ways to speed traffic in midtown, believes jaywalking may be part of the problem. Within the next month, the DOT will announce a new pedestrian safety program. "It will emphasis the three Es: education, engineering, and enforcement," says Allan Fromberg, a spokesman for the DOT.
If New York does begin enforcing its jaywalking laws, it will join other cities, such as Los Angeles and Seattle, which regularly ticket offenders. Last year, the Seattle Police Department wrote 745 jaywalking tickets at $38 a pop. This was down from almost 7,000 in 1988.
Los Angeles is probably the most zealous enforcer of the rules. Last year, the Los Angeles Police Department gave approximately 8,500 jaywalking tickets at $55 per ticket. Recently, an LA television station aimed its camera at a street near the criminal courts. "They caught all these lawyers jaywalking across the street - it made the nightly news," recalls George Callandrillo, who does statistical analysis for the LAPD.
Jaywalking, however, is not normally big news in the Big Apple. It only took eight minutes and 51 seconds to observe 100 jaywalkers at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street. Some people are even oblivious. "Did I jaywalk?" asks Frank incredulously as he lugs a suitcase past traffic inching its way through the intersection.
Although jaywalking may be a sport in New York, the number of pedestrian fatalities involving jaywalking is minuscule. According to the New York Department of Motor Vehicles in Albany, the police reported 14,536 pedestrians involved in accidents last year. However, there were only 177 pedestrian accidents involving jaywalking and a minimum of five fatal accidents.
Some question the need for legislation given the small number of fatalities. And Louis, the jaywalking ex-policeman, doubts cops will want to enforce any new jaywalking rules. "It's not really something you want to do," he says. "The public would be very unhappy."