Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Jaywalking

1937 WPA Poster, from Wikipedia

“There was a lot of anger in the early years,” says Norton. “A lot of resentment against cars for endangering streets…. [Auto manufacturers] said, ‘If we’re going to have a future for cars in the city, we have to change that. They’re being portrayed as Satan’s murdering machines.'”

AAA and other auto clubs turned first to the younger generation, financing safety education programs in the public schools that were designed to teach children that streets are for cars, not for kids. They funded safety patrols that taught kids they had to stop for traffic, not the other way around.

One key turning point, according to Norton, came in 1923 in Cincinnati. Citizens’ anger over pedestrian deaths gave rise to a referendum drive. It gathered some 7,000 signatures in support of a rule that would have required all vehicles in the city to be fitted with speed governors limiting them to 25 miles per hour.

Local auto clubs and dealers recognized that cars would be a lot harder to sell if there was a cap on their speed. So they went into overdrive in their campaign against the initiative. They sent letters to every individual with a car in the city, saying that the rule would condemn the U.S. to the fate of China, which they painted as the world’s most backward nation. They even hired pretty women to invite men to head to the polls and vote against the rule. And the measure failed…

The industry lobbied to change the law, promoting the adoption of traffic statutes to supplant common law. The statutes were designed to restrict pedestrian use of the street and give primacy to cars. The idea of “jaywalking” – a concept that had not really existed prior to 1920 – was enshrined in law.

This from Sarah Goodyear at Atlantic Cities, and the Norton she quotes is Peter Norton, author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. In keeping with the theme of micro-institutions, Norton says that when discussing rules that govern traffic behavior, “We’re talking less about laws than we are about norms.”

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