Thursday, June 20, 2024

Somerville’s Traffic Board may strike legal language insisting that people use crosswalks when it’s safe to cross elsewhere. (Photo: Marc Levy)

While the Legislature ponders a bill that could toughen the state’s jaywalking laws, Somerville is considering easing them.

The city’s Traffic Board plans a virtual hearing at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday to strike part of a regulation setting how people can cross the street, namely that if there’s a marked crosswalk within 300 feet, walkers are required to use it.

The hearing comes in response to a petition of 71 registered voters led by Stephanie Galaitsi, of Morrison Avenue.

“This [300-foot] distance, which combined with the distance to return to the same spot on the other side of the street, is more than one-tenth of a mile.This is an overly onerous requirement for people to go visit their neighbors,” Galaitsi said in an Oct. 17 letter explaining the need for changing the law. “This is not the right to walk or run into the path of a vehicle … Rather it is the right to cross the street when it is safe to do so.”

The term jaywalking was promoted by the automobile industry in the 1920s – and invented in Boston, legend has it – and “with this petition, we ask that Somerville restore some rights to pedestrians,” Galaitsi said.

The state is notorious for pedestrians who assert their jaywalking rights already, perhaps aided by fines that are unlikely to scare them straight into a crosswalk: $1 for the first through third offenses and $2 each time after that.

In 2017, as Dracut state Rep. Colleen Garry began a campaign to let cities and towns hike those fees to $25 for first offenses, $50 for second offenses and $100 from then on within 365 days – all doubled for people distracted by headphones or phones – Boston magazine found a 1999 Public Health Commission survey saying “only 12 percent of pedestrians actually follow the ‘walk’ signs.” Garry is trying again with a bill submitted last year, “An Act to Prevent Jaywalking.”

Even if Garry’s bill becomes law, Somerville wouldn’t have to adopt it – and it could be a stretch in pedestrian-friendly Somerville, where the race director for the Somerville Road Runners is also deputy director of the group WalkBoston, and calls Garry’s bill “just not realistic.”

In the view of Galaitsi and the dozens of other signers of the petition, “Somerville residents should not be required to walk 300 feet to a crosswalk to cross the street. If conditions are safe, they should be able to cross where they are.”

  • The Somerville Traffic Board’s virtual public hearing on jaywalking regulations is at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, with a two-minute limit on public comment. Information is here.