Wednesday, July 24, 2024

A pedestrian crosses diagonally, ignoring crosswalks, at Beacon and Washington streets in Somerville on Sunday. (Photo: Annie Schugart)

The Traffic Commission in Somerville is still grappling with reforming jaywalking laws in a state where offenders can be fined only up to $2 for the crime and a city where no such tickets have been issued since the early 1970s, at least according to William Rymill, a police lieutenant who represents the Somerville Police Department on the commission.

Part of Somerville’s jaywalking law – that if there’s a marked crosswalk within 300 feet, pedestrians must use it – was struck in December in response to a citizen petition that called it “an overly onerous requirement” and said that “if conditions are safe, [people] should be able to cross where they are.”

But there are two other parts of the law – if there is a police officer directing traffic or a traffic control signal nearby – that was not part of that change.

Those were taken up May 11 by the Traffic Commission, looking at whether pedestrians need to use crosswalks if police or a signal are within 150 feet or the law’s original 300 feet. The commission ended up tabling the matter to a future meeting, for when it had more information provided on what either distance really looked like on the average Somerville street.

“It just seems like we may need some more information and some more models,” said Jill Lathan, the chair of the committee. “I just want to make sure that we’re really aware and doing our due diligence on this item.”

With jaywalking already incredibly common in Massachusetts, and the enforcement of laws against it sparse, it is reasonable to wonder why changes are even being considered. 

The citizens petition wanted to end a law that benefits drivers more than pedestrians and gives police a pretext that can be weaponized against people of color, safe-streets activist Stephanie Galaitsi said. Her petition started “with the easy thing” and, when it came to the remaining aspects, Galaitsi recalled thinking, residents could “maybe tackle them later.” She spoke by phone Sunday.

Reasoning among city staff

The reasoning of Brian Postlewaite, the director of engineering for Somerville who presented the amendment that would add the 300 feet enforcement area back to the regulation, is different.

During a phone interview, Postlewaite gave a few reasons as to why people may be interested in changing the law. One reason could be that police attitudes surrounding jaywalking could change in the future. If that were to happen, “we want to create a rational set of rules.” He also said that rules can communicate to pedestrians where it is safe to cross. Finally, he also said that if an accident occurred, fair rules may help a pedestrian in court. 

Not all of that struck Galaitsi as sound, considering that jaywalking laws are already on the books.

A problem with setting a distance requirement is that “I have no sense of what 300 feet is,” Galaitsi said. 

There have been several decades to test whether the existing law helps pedestrians in court, and “if you keep the law at 300 feet, it seems more about protecting drivers.” 

Common sense

Postlewaite also gave what he called an “extreme example” of what could happen if the language was not added back to the regulation: “If I had a red ‘don’t walk’ signal at a traffic signal, I could step outside of the crosswalk and proceed to cross the intersection.”

It’s still against the law to cross the street when a car is coming, while the law assumes cars yield to people in crosswalks – yet in five pedestrian deaths within the past five years, four of the victims were in a crosswalk. “Cars are not yielding to us anyway. You have to use your good judgment,” Galaitsi said.

Brendan Kearney, the deputy director of advocacy at WalkMassachusetts, an organization that advocates for pedestrian safety statewide and submitted testimony for the removal of the crosswalk requirement, said laws should reflect people’s behavior, and people disobey pedestrian crossing rules because they don’t make sense. “I would never go a couple blocks down, cross the crosswalk and then come all the way back,” he said of his time living in Somerville. 

Small blocks vs. state law

One virtue of keeping the law at 300 feet is that it’s the state limit too. Postlewaite, the Somerville engineer, said it would “just be inconsistent” if Somerville had a substantially different number of feet in its law compared with neighboring communities.

Yet blocks in Somerville are often shorter than 300 feet, said city councilor Beatriz Gomez Mouakad, who wants to wait for information on how a shortening of the distance would affect certain parts of the city. 

“It’s more in alignment with our blocks,” she said of a 150-foot rule. “That being said, if we stuck to 300 feet we would be abiding by state law, and there are places where we have state roads.”

She also thinks that the city needs to start looking at areas where crosswalks are not frequent. 

“We’re asking pedestrians to go for a very long stretch, and then what happens is we have people crossing in very dangerous conditions,” Mouakad said.

Consequences of a law

In 2021, the state Legislature saw an effort to substantially increase fines for jaywalking in the state, but no action has been taken on the legislation since 2022 and enforcement would be left to local jurisdictions. 

To Kearney, of WalkMassachusetts, that raises concerns about equity issues. 

“As we’ve seen in other places around the country, by even having the laws out there that give police a wide berth of how it gets enforced or not enforced, that can really lead to dire consequences,” Kearney said. He cited a 2017 report by ProPublica and the Florida Times-Union that revealed that black people were three times more likely than white people to be ticketed for a pedestrian violation in Jacksonville, Florida.

Galaitsi worried this month when the police department’s Traffic Safety Program sought an additional $17,238 for “pedestrian and bike enforcement.” She was assured by city councilor Jake Wilson that he’d asked specifically about use of the money during a Finance Committee meeting May 9, being told by police that the grant application was made before the change around jaywalking, and that the entire sum was for bicycle enforcement.