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
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
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
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
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
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.