Jaywalking: The Libertarian Approach (and Why it Works)
By Beth Cody, Writers’ Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Iowa City Police Department’s recent ticketing of jaywalkers has gotten a bit of local press recently, several articles and letters appearing in the Press-Citizen and the Daily Iowan. Most students seem to agree that the $70 fine for jaywalking (a “crime” that usually hurts nobody) is both absurd and too expensive for students.

However, some wrote that because the laws are supposed to protect pedestrians, they are OK. This is typical of the expanding “Nanny State” we live in. We feel perfectly justified in demanding that government reduce our (and everyone else’s) risks of living to zero, not realizing that we lose our freedoms in the process and that the laws don’t actually make us safer after all, as statistics repeatedly show.

And Maria Houser Conzemius (a former social worker, of course) not only applauds the crackdown on jaywalkers, but believes that we need to be protected from our own choices with even more laws (“Wear a helmet while negotiating Iowa City traffic,” Aug. 30). She even referred to people who resist the Nannies (caring folk such as herself who know better than we do) as “crazies” for wanting to defend our right to ride a bike without a helmet. But the thing about Nannies is that they will never stop – not even after our diet, sleep habits, sex lives and everything else are decided for us by “experts,” for our own good, of course.

And some people think that because jaywalking laws are rarely enforced, they aren’t a big deal. People laugh at ridiculous archaic laws, but such laws have no place in a good legal system. Laws should be easily understood and few in number – prohibiting only force and fraud against others. Having numerous unclear laws makes unwitting criminals of nearly everyone, at the mercy of law enforcers’ personal whims.

Because rarely-enforced laws can be enforced whenever it is useful to do so, law enforcers can selectively target those citizens they might not like for whatever reason (perhaps for questioning stupid laws?). Officer Ed Martin didn’t ticket all jaywalkers; he let off those who bowed and scraped in a properly obedient manner, which should make everyone’s skin crawl. Laws applied arbitrarily result in rule by men, not rule of law.

Laws against jaywalking should be repealed. But wouldn’t that result in masses of pedestrians getting themselves killed?

Surprisingly, fewer traffic laws and regulations can paradoxically result in a safer community. There is a concept in traffic engineering called “second-generation” traffic calming that has been successfully implemented in Europe. The idea is that in pedestrian-heavy areas, people and cars should be allowed to intermix at will. Sidewalks and traffic signs are eliminated, and instead, paving and landscaping indicate that pedestrians, cyclists, children playing and slow-moving vehicles should all mingle together. Sounds like chaos, right?

But it is the very chaos and uncertainty that keep everyone safe. Drivers will naturally drive fast if the way is clearly indicated, speed limits be damned. But without a clear right-of-way, drivers must drive more slowly and make eye contact with other drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists.

This flies in the face of traditional traffic control theory, which tries to control drivers externally, through crosswalks and signs. But these measures only encourage drivers to substitute government rules for their own judgment.

Removing traffic lights, stop signs, speed limits, street markings, crosswalks, curbs and even sidewalks unexpectedly results in safer streets. Research in Holland and Denmark has shown that fatalities at busy intersections dropped from two or three every year to zero when markings and boundaries were removed.

Many drivers will complain that driving in pedestrian-heavy areas would take longer and require more concentration. They are absolutely correct, and as a result, some drivers would likely choose to avoid driving in those areas. But the changes would only be implemented in residential and pedestrian-intense downtown areas. Highways and main roads like the Coralville Strip would still allow drivers to speed to their hearts’ content (speed limits notwithstanding). Drivers and pedestrians can peacefully co-exist, with less government interference.

Like most libertarian ideas, it seems counter-intuitive that relinquishing control results in better outcomes. It seems too easy to be true. But that is the paradox of libertarianism.