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Jaywalking Is Australia's Most Ridiculous, Money-Grabbing Crime

Your guide to the criminal offence that sounds made-up.

Sophie Verass

Image via Wiki Commons

In Australia, crossing a road when the pedestrian light is red—or failing to use a nearby designated pedestrian crossing—constitutes a full blown criminal offence. Sure "jaywalking" sounds like some made up crime that exists only in movies about New York, but around Australia people are racking up fines for it every day.

In the past three years though some 10,000 pedestrians have been fined for crossing roads in New South Wales alone. During this time, NSW Police's "Operation Franklin" has dished out a whopping $120,000 worth of fines, mainly targeting Sydney's CBD.

From the numbers, you'd think we have a jaywalking epidemic. But, really, more Australians die from the common flu than from crossing the road. Of the 169 pedestrian deaths in the year to July, most are result of drink driving and drivers on their phones—rather than bad judgement on behalf of the pedestrian.

So how did simply crossing the road come to be illegal, and how much are governments raking in from keeping this law on the books? We went digging to find out more.

Sydney jaywalkers getting fined. Image by Flickr user Kim

Jaywalking: What's Up With the Name?

Who is Jay and what made him such an unruly pedestrian? Actually, the term "jaywalking" is an Americanism that Australians have happily accepted as our own. Like "potato chips" or thinking it's okay to name children "Brooklyn."

Calling someone a "jay" in early America was to call them a kind of "empty-headed" chatter-box. Apparently, being talkative was an unattractive quality in the 19th century. This is said to be related to the blue jay, a bird known for its incessant "chattering" tweet. The word "Jay" gradually evolved into a derogatory class term, namely for people from the sticks; a bumpkin, a rube, a philistine, and someone who didn't grasp the niceties of urban refinement.

Therefore, to jaywalk was to lack pedestrian etiquette, in the way that a person from the country would navigate an urban road. Basically, someone who'd cross a road like they'd never seen a car before.

It's no coincidence that jaywalking became a recognised law at the same time as the automobile was graduating from luxury to necessity. It was a time when cars were for the future and common walking was for the jays. In the 1920s, auto clubs and dealers actually took up a campaign of labelling and scorning jaywalkers in an attempt to redefine streets as places where those on foot (the lowest tier of traveller) did not belong. During the establishment of a jaywalker, there were more tensions between cars and pedestrians than there were collisions.

But as motorised traffic won the war of the roads and spread across the globe, so came the jaywalking legislation. Many countries from Brazil to Poland adopted this policy. Currently, Singapore has the world's toughest jaywalking laws. Traffic controllers regularly hand out fines in busy traffic areas and repeat jaywalkers are even at risk for a three-month jail term. Australia's penalties, however, are a little more lax, making our laws more of a good day for the tax office rather than a bad day for an individual's freedom.


Watch this related VICE doco about Aussie burnout culture:


Jaywalking Fine, State-By-State

There are a number of finicky variants in "Pedestrian Offences" (i.e. jaywalking) across Australia, but most state laws—if not all—come from the Australian Road Rules legislation. When not accounting for the traffic conditions and real danger of jaywalking, and simply coming from a Compare the Market/best deal perspective, the top places to find yourself jaywalking are:

  • SA with a $48 fine
  • Either WA or QLD, with a $50 fine
  • NSW with a $71 fine
  • VIC with a $79 fine
  • TAS with an $80 fine
  • The ACT is up to $132.

But none of that compares to the NT, where jaywalking cost $150 plus a $40 victim's levy if you're penalised with "walking without due care on a road or a public place."

Rather than simply operating outside of Australia's jaywalking equity, this is fairly typical for the NT's "tough on crime" laws. Laws that are often criticised as malleable and ethnocentric commonly affect Indigenous offenders. As it stands, the NT has the highest imprisonment rate in Australia with 86 percent of the prison population Indigenous. Many are actually incarcerated for failing to pay fines they simply can't afford.

Pedestrian Vs Driver: Who's in the Wrong?

If there is a fatality, the driver could be charged with culpable driving causing death. If the pedestrian is only injured, the charge is likely to be "dangerous driving causing serious injury." But this all varies depending on a combination of state legislation and charges laid by police on a case-by-case basis.

In 2008, for example, a Sydney taxi driver was driving through an intersection on a green light when he hit and killed a man trying to cross the road. The deceased's mother brought a claim to the NSW District Court and the judge found the taxi driver to be negligent in identifying jaywalkers and subsequently failing to reduce his speed.

Such is similar for pedestrians who stumble off the sidewalk and into traffic. In 2006, a drunk Queensland man was walking along a road trying to hitchhike when he was hit and injured. Even though it could be argued that the man was "walking without due care," the Supreme Court Judge found that in this case, the driver was in fact negligent for failing to keep a proper lookout. If the driver had greater "awareness," the judge said, the man should have seen the drunk man and avoided hitting him.

So What Have We Learned?

If you're a driver, don't hit jaywalkers. And if you're a jaywalker, be aware that you're committing a crime that attracts fines, even though it's mostly not a crime.

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