3 reasons to reform Washington’s jaywalking laws

Washington’s jaywalking laws are outdated and ineffective at protecting people who walk and roll from getting hit by cars. Here are three reasons why it’s time to reform our state’s jaywalking laws and end jaywalking enforcement. 


Better infrastructure, not punishment, will protect people walking and rolling.

Study after study has shown that infrastructure and street design are what reduce pedestrian injuries and fatalities. Things like sidewalks, accessible crosswalks, and increasing the time people have to cross before a light changes are the best defense against pedestrian deaths. In October 2022, the Seattle Times reported that Washington state is facing an “epidemic” of inaccessible sidewalks.

Cars are the cause of injuries and putting the onus on pedestrians obscures this fact.

The sad reality is pedestrian deaths and injuries are increasing nationwide but from things like speeding, distracted driving, and an influx of larger, deadlier vehicles—not jaywalking.

Angie Schmitt, the author of “Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America,” in an interview with Current Affairs, said that the tendency to blame people walking and rolling is strong.

“There’s this kind of knee-jerk reaction, usually when a pedestrian or cyclist is struck, to point the finger back. It’s very common in news reports. They’ll say the person wasn’t in the crosswalk or was wearing dark clothing, and they don’t say that that means it’s their fault, but that’s clearly the implication.” – A. Schmitt

Reforming jaywalking laws has not made pedestrians less safe

In states and jurisdictions that have already decriminalized jaywalking, preliminary data shows it has had no discernable impact on pedestrian safety. Virginia was the first state to decriminalize jaywalking in March 2020, and the safety disaster that some opponents predicted has not materialized. As Schmitt points out, “pedestrians already have every incentive to avoid getting hit by cars.”

People that “jaywalk” are usually making an informed decision.

Jaywalking may be the most rational choice for people needing to cross a street, given a host of bad options. A 2014 study by the Federal Highway Administration used environmental factors — like the presence of a right-turn lane or the distance between crosswalks — to predict with 90% accuracy whether or not a person would cross mid-block. People who jaywalk often do so because they don’t have other options. On many Washington streets, pedestrian crossings can be miles apart, making jaywalking more likely.

Our research reveals that across Washington, police stops for jaywalking predominantly occur on large arterial roadways and state highways characterized by pedestrian-hostile infrastructure. We found that: 

  • The majority of mid-block crossings that lead to a stop happen 500 or more feet from the nearest marked crosswalk or signalized intersection. This distance represents at least a four-minute round-trip detour on foot, not including the wait time for long signals that frequently prioritize vehicular traffic over pedestrians. 
  • Three-quarters of crossing-related violations leading to a police contact occur on roads with five or more lanes. 
  • Most violations related to walking on the roadway occur on roads with no sidewalks or a sidewalk only on one side.


Race informs who gets stopped for jaywalking.

Racial bias (implicit or otherwise) can affect who gets stopped, what happens, and how steep the punishments are. A 2017 Seattle Times article found that of the 1,710 jaywalking tickets issued by Seattle police from 2010 to 2016, more than one in four went to Black people, who represent just about 7 percent of the city’s population. Across Washington, our research found that Black pedestrians are stopped by police for jaywalking at an average rate approximately four times that of their share of the population. And national numbers make it clear that disproportionate enforcement isn’t just a Washington state issue.

For Black and Brown Americans, interactions with police can be potentially life-threatening.

Jaywalking has often been used by police as a pretextual stop, leading to dangerous interactions between police and people of color, like the 2014 incident in Ferguson, Missouri, where teenager Michael Brown was shot dead by an officer. Brown was stopped for crossing in the middle of the street. In 2019, an Auburn, WA police officer shot and killed 26-year-old Jesse Sarey while trying to arrest him for jaywalking.

Dozens of police reports show jaywalking stops across Washington leading to the use of physical force by an officer, foot pursuits, or otherwise explosive confrontations.

Jaywalking enforcement disproportionately impacts poor people.

According to our research, unhoused residents represent nearly half of those impacted by jaywalking stops in Washington. Low-income and working-class Washingtonians are also much more likely to be cited for jaywalking because they tend to live in areas with less infrastructure and resources. The impact of being cited only compounds for these communities who are often unable to pay expensive fines or take time off work.

As Charles T. Brown, senior researcher and adjunct professor at Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University, pointed out, people living in lower-income areas often jaywalk because they have to.

“People jaywalk out of necessity, so I find it unjust that we are targeting those who jaywalk when they are basically responding to the environment which they have been given.” – C.T. Brown


The term “jaywalking” started as a slur meaning an unintelligent, rural person who didn’t know how to navigate city life.

Jaywalking is used as a pretext to target people for policing.

Our research has found that police in Washington use jaywalking stops not primarily for safety education, but rather to arbitrarily stop people who are walking in low-income and/or high-crime areas in order to check for open warrants. 

Computer-aided dispatch (CAD) records show police conducting warrant checks during approximately three-quarters of all jaywalking stops, taking advantage of the opportunity to run an individual’s name, birth date, and/or ID through national and state criminal databases. Police reports show that jaywalking enforcement is often a component of so-called “street crimes” or “predictive policing” emphasis patrols. 


Jaywalking enforcement is an inefficient use of public resources.

Police resources are stretched thin, not just in Seattle but across Washington state, where staff have more duties than they can attend to. By repealing Washington’s jaywalking laws, police departments can prioritize urgent issues, while reducing their interactions with civilians. As already shown, jaywalking laws don’t keep people safe and enforcing them is an inefficient use of public resources.

Reforming Washington’s outdated jaywalking laws is the obvious choice.