Tuesday, February 27, 1996
Public enemy number one: Jaywalkers

The Cincinnati Enquirer

After last weekend's story in The Enquirer announcing a police crackdown on jaywalkers in Cincinnati, a worried reader called me at 7:35 in the morning.

''Good morning, I didn't expect - I hoped you wouldn't be - behind your desk at this hour,'' the woman told my voice mail. ''But wouldn't you please write an article about jaywalking. What is jaywalking? Where did this term come from? Where is one supposed to cross? What if I jaywalk and get caught? What on Earth can they be thinking?''

First, let me put your mind at ease, Thoughtful Reader. I was nowhere near my desk at 7:35 on a Saturday morning. And if my luck holds, I never will be.

The slippery slope

As for the rest of it, I consulted the most highly regarded experts in the city. Judge Deidra Hair of Hamilton County Common Pleas Court said that if you're within 40 feet of an intersection or crosswalk, you have to cross at the intersection or crosswalk and obey the Walk - Don't Walk signs. If you are 41 feet from an intersection, apparently all bets are off.

Jerry Poland of the county Clerk of Courts office told me that if you're cited for jaywalking, it costs $56, which you can just pay up and shut up. If you dispute it and go to court, the judge can fine you as much as $100. If you don't do anything for seven days, the fine automatically becomes $86.

If you ignore everybody for long enough, Mr. Poland said, they issue a capias. (Which is not a castrated male chicken. That is a capon, you dunderhead). A capias is an arrest warrant, which originates from the Latin meaning to seize,and I think this gives you an idea of how serious they are about this. It looks to me as though the jaywalker is poised on the edge of that slippery slope leading directly to the Big House.

Mark Dinkelacker of the reference department at the Marx Law Library at the University of Cincinnati College of Law tells me that the origin of the term is early 20th-century American.

In the 1910s, ''jay'' was a slang term meaning ''a stupid, silly person; a simpleton,'' and naturally, pretty soon everybody was calling someone stupid enough to cross streets unsafely a ''jaywalker.'' Or anyway, that's what Mr. Dinkelacker and I decided.

Lt. Col. Theodore Schoch, the acting police chief, remembers fondly a time when we were ''known as a city where jaywalking was taken seriously.'' I think that was also a time when nobody had heard of crack cocaine or drive-by shootings or gangs that did not include Spanky and Darla and Buckwheat.

There will be a new focus on enforcement, Lt. Col. Schoch told The Enquirer. ''That enforcement can be a warning, but I want to see something written,'' he said.

Well, of course. If there's anything we need more than a crackdown on people who are not using the crosswalks, it would be more paperwork.

Although, city traffic records showed that from 1992 through 1995, pedestrian traffic fatalities declined, while police issued half as many tickets. So, I guess, the unsophisticated observer could wonder whether this doesn't prove that writing tickets to jaywalkers has absolutely no effect whatsoever on traffic deaths.

Curiouser and curiouser

So, I turned to Mr. Law and Order himself, Cincinnati City Councilman Phil Heimlich, hoping maybe he could help out with the ''what on Earth are they thinking'' portion of the question.

Of 30 traffic fatalities in Cincinnati last year, five were pedestrians. He explained that's nearly twice the statewide percentage of pedestrians killed in traffic accidents. Apparently, not many pedestrian fatalities are happening out there on the interstates and rural roads.

Big surprise.

The good news is that this peculiar statistic qualified us for $112,000 in state money. The bad news is that we didn't apply in time to get it. Mr. Heimlich said he's checking with the safety director to see whether police were told to turn up the heat on jaywalkers because they were expecting a grant that never materialized.

I hope so. Drugs. Rape. Robbery. Drive-by shootings. When I think of all the things I'd like to ask a police officer to save me from, I think a jaywalker would be pretty far down on the list.

Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU-FM (91.7 MHz), and as a regular commentator on NPR's Morning Edition.