Special for Infobae of New York Times.
Jason Sarris was rebuilding his life. He was going to stay sober, renew his driver’s license and find stable housing after being homeless for 12 years. But there was something else holding him back: nearly $5,000 in fines for jaywalking and similar infractions.
Sarris recalled one such ticket vividly. He had looked both ways to make sure there was no traffic on a street in Novato, California, and then crossed to a Goodwill store, when he found a police officer waiting for him with a ticket in hand.
“I had no way to pay for it,” Sarris said. “He was well known as a homeless person, and I became a target.”
California has long had a reputation for strictly enforcing the laws against reckless pedestrian crossings. That’s about to change thanks to a new law decriminalizing infraction, which goes into effect Jan. 1. Under the “Freedom to Walk” law, signed into law on September 30 by Gov. Gavin Newsom, pedestrians will no longer be ticketed with a fine of up to $250 if they cross a street outside of designated intersections.
Sarris, who testified for the bill at a legislative hearing, told The New York Times in an interview that he had begun trying to “get his life in order” in 2020. When he tried to renew his driver’s license, Sarris was informed that he had to pay what he owed in fines for infractions such as jaywalking or walking in a bike lane. Sarris settled his traffic ticket in community court, but he hopes others won’t face the same difficulties.
“I just hope it gives people a chance to live their lives,” he said.
While the law stops short of completely eliminating pedestrian crossing rules, supporters say it will restore some balance for pedestrians in California’s car-centric culture, as well as help eliminate racial and economic disparities in its enforcement. . Under the measure, police will be able to issue a citation only if there is an immediate danger to the pedestrian, and the act of recklessly crossing the street cannot be used as a pretext to stop someone.
Data from the California Racial and Identity Profiling Act cited by the office of Assemblyman Phil Ting, the bill’s proponent, shows that black people in San Diego are 4.3 times more likely to be cited for crossing the street than recklessly than white pedestrians, and are 3.7 times more likely to be cited by the Los Angeles Police Department.
California’s reassessment follows Nevada and Virginia, which decriminalized reckless crossing the street last year. Kansas City, Missouri, removed pedestrian reckless crossing from its code. Although pedestrian crossing laws are still in place in most states and large cities across the country, the number of citations and tickets is much lower in places like New York City compared to the West Coast.
Not everyone thinks decriminalization is a good idea. Steve Barrow, director of programs for the California Coalition for the Safety and Health of Children, said his organization opposed the bill because it would endanger more people, especially children, who would be more likely to follow the example of adults crossing streets facing traffic.
“Removing the traffic safety law against reckless pedestrian crossings does not address any inequity in the way the laws are enforced,” said Barrow, who emphasized that the population needs “well-defined pedestrian traffic safety laws” since the traffic congestion, speeding and distracted driving are on the rise.
The new law follows a record year for pedestrian fatalities, in which an estimated 7,485 pedestrians died in the United States, the most in four decades, according to the Governors Association for Highway Safety. However, pedestrian rights advocates and others say the real problem is that streets are increasingly designed for fast-moving cars at the expense of pedestrian safety.