A few months back, I can’t exactly remember where and when, I came across the word “Jaywalking”. Since then, it has regularly popped up in discussions with people and so I took a good look at the wikipedia page. Forward to me mentioning it on the twitters, which triggered Jan Lehnardt to ask me if I could summarize my findings in a blog post. Which makes this the second post I wrote on his request.

Well, here you go. First of all: I am not a lawyer. This text may also be full of errors. So don’t consider this text to be a legal advice.

The term Jaywalking describes the act of crossing a street as a pedestrian at places and times where you probably should not. I say “probably”, because things already start to get blurry.

Take my home country, for example. It is not illegal to cross a street at a random point. Actually I’m pretty sure that this is not true for all roads, as I am pretty sure German law has something to say about crossing an autobahn, but let’s just assume classic standard inner city roadworks, no motorway, no highway.

So, as I said, you’re totally free to cross any street at any given point and it’s totally up to you to be clever enough to not be run over by cars. Now, if you do get hit by a car, things get utterly complicated in the process of finding out who might be responsible for that, so let’s leave that out as well. This is civil law by then anyway.

There is, of course (there always is) an exception in our beloved “Strassenverkehrs-Ordnung”, or short StVO (Isn’t that one of the most german sounding words of them all?). As soon as you are within sight of a pedestrian crossing, or crosswalk for my american readers (weird enough, the law does not define a clear, distance based boundary on what “within sight” means), you are obliged to use it. And, as many people around the world find out when visiting germany, you are then forced to adhere to the traffic light. The fine for crossing a street during the red light seems to be something around 5 EUR, but I personally don’t know anyone who knows someone who knows someone who ever had to pay that fine. But that’s also because in general people just adhere to the traffic light, even if it makes no sense, because it’s 3AM in a godforsaken suburb and the next car will most probably cross this place in about two hours.

So, there you have it. We germans, we generally respect our laws (except when it’s about illegally copying music, of course), even if the fine does not exactly pose a huge threat. And the line of thinking here is that it makes sense to adhere to these rules because people who are not yet able to grasp traffic and also the reasons for the laws and when it might be safe to ignore them, specifically: Children might actually be safer by just following the rules. This pretty much describes my approach to the red lights: If there are children around, I wait. If not, I might wait.

Contrast that with the UK. Except for motorways (see above), you are completely safe to ignore any traffic light at your will. And, as I found out last year when I stayed in London city for a few weeks, people generally do. There is a lot of text in the “Highway code”, the UK version of the StVO, about crossing a street safely, but it is of advisory nature. Keep it in mind, but don’t fret about it.

There is a certain twist to this, however, which I find interesting: While the advisory parts in the “Highway Code” are not enforceable by police officers, they do have a certain binding for anything that happens in civil law. Which, as anyone can tell you who ever had a car accident, happens almost everytime something in traffic hits something else or someone for that matter.

About the children problem? In the UK, you’ll learn about something called “Green Cross Code” in school and the tagline is “Stop, Look, Listen and Think” before crossing the road. Makes sense to me.

I must admit, the UK version has a certain appeal to me. I cannot imagine how pedestrian traffic around, let’s say Kings Cross in London would look like if people would use the german approach.

Enter north america. Utter chaos. Every state, sometimes even single cities have their own rules about this. The interesting part is that in some places jaywalking might actually get you in court because it is treated as a misdemeanor instead of an infraction (Look who’s laughing now! The german code doesn’t seem so bad now, eh?). And then you have places like New York city, where law code and actual behaviour differ so widely that the police almost completely stopped caring.

And just for kicks in the WTF department, in Singapore you can be charged with up to three months of jail for jaywalking (the typical fine is S$20, though).

I have yet to find out about the rules around jaywalking in Italy. I’m pretty sure it’s a fascinating read that has absolutely nothing to do with reality on the streets. After spending a few days in Naples last year, the usual behaviour for crossing the street is to simply do it, quick, without looking up, and taking a pill to calm down your nerves on the other side of the road.

What I find so fascinating about all this is that while the intentions of these laws are almost exactly the same anywhere (with some local fringes, of course) and the actual behaviour of people is not so diffent (if you take out both local extremes of Italy and Germany), the actual codification in law is extremely variying.

The upshot I haven’t written about so much: In most cases car drivers are actually required to yield to pedestrians in almost all situations.

Next time I’ll write about jaybiking. Then again, maybe not.