Shawn Anderson was crossing Jefferson Boulevard at the corner of Figueroa Street on Oct. 30 when he and his parents were stopped by a Los Angeles Police Department traffic officer. Anderson, a freshman majoring in international relations, recalled feeling confusion and then shock as the officer explained that he had been stopped for violating the city’s jaywalking code and wrote him and his parents each a citation.
“I was kind of stunned the whole time because at first I thought he was just going to tell us to be more careful,” Anderson said.
Jaywalking hadn’t even crossed Anderson’s mind. He, like many others, was unaware that California Vehicle Code 21456 prohibits pedestrians from stepping off the curb once the crosswalk timer starts counting down. This law, however, is just one of many reasons that LAPD officers have begun enforcing jaywalking laws more strictly in recent months — a process that has affected students around campus and brought traffic policing into the spotlight.
A spike in collisions
Shawn’s case is not unique. This year, LAPD has stepped up its efforts to enforce the city’s jaywalking laws around the USC area, according to Capt. David Kowalski, head of the LAPD South Traffic Division. According to Kowalski, LAPD noticed an increase in the number of pedestrian-related traffic collisions, many of them fatal, within the vicinity of the University Park Campus at the start of the year; as a whole, the South Traffic Division has seen more than 100 serious pedestrian-related collisions to date this year, compared to 90 at this time last year.
“Because USC has such a high volume of people on the street, both students and residents, we’ve had a bigger push to enforce [jaywalking laws] there,” Kowalski said. “Figueroa is one of the most high-volume areas for these types of collisions, so that’s one of the areas that we direct our officers to.”
According to Kowalski, these measures have had an impact on pedestrian safety in the area; since beginning their more active enforcement program, officers have noticed collisions involving pedestrians going down.
That’s because crosswalk countdowns are designed with pedestrian safety in mind, according to James Moore, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at the Viterbi School of Engineering.
“If a student that tends to be athletic and young and highly mobile chooses to race across the street because there are 11 seconds left and he or she expects to make it, that’s a different level of risk than somebody who’s less mobile, who might not be able to clear the crosswalk in time,” he said. “And the traffic engineer doesn’t know who’s going to be making the decision, so they have to design for an average performance plus a safety margin.”
Questions of enforcement
Kowalski emphasized that police officers are directed to prioritize educating people over penalizing them; as a result, they aim to give out written warning citations, which don’t go on a person’s criminal record, as much as possible.
“It’s a huge positive impact for us because it makes what’s perceived as a negative contact with police into a positive one, and we’re educating [pedestrians] without hurting their record or the inconvenience of going to court or [receiving] a fine,” Kowalski said.
However, pedestrian traffic enforcement doesn’t always play out as planned. Some students, such as Shannon Reiffen, a senior majoring in broadcast and digital journalism, have received traffic tickets with fines as high as $200. Others, such as Joann Lin, a freshman accounting major, walked away with just a verbal warning.
This wide discrepancy in jaywalking penalties, according to Kowalski, is due to the fact that enforcement is left up to the individual officer’s discretion — he or she can decide to give out a ticket, a citation or a verbal warning, depending on whether a student is able to provide a “valid reason” for jaywalking or not.
“We don’t give [our officers] a number or a quota [of tickets] — what we ask our officers to do is to have as many contacts as possible with the public,” Kowalski said. “Every contact is a little different, and every police officer is a little different, but the thing we stress with our officers is to treat everyone with respect, treat everyone equally, be fair and professional during every contact.”
A city-wide problem
According to Kowalski, LAPD doesn’t set the cost of a traffic ticket. However, having the ability to decide whether or not to give them out for jaywalking becomes a problem for those who do receive tickets. Students aren’t the only ones affected; as penalties for jaywalking become harsher and more strictly enforced, they can become expensive for who don’t have the means to pay them.
“They very adversely affect low-income folks who sometimes simply can’t afford the ticket,” Moore said. “While I think that using tickets as a way of promoting safety is sensible and consistent with traffic engineering practice, the costs of tickets in Los Angeles are counterproductive, because if you can’t pay the ticket, it has no deterrent effect.”
The South Traffic Division isn’t the only area in Los Angeles where LAPD has been stepping up its efforts to prevent jaywalking. Vision Zero Los Angeles, a joint program of the Mayor’s Office, LAPD and the L.A. Department of Transportation, was implemented this year in an attempt to bring down the number of traffic-related deaths in the city to zero by 2025. According to the project’s website, 44 percent of all traffic-related deaths and severe injuries in the city involve people walking or bicycling, and the majority — 65 percent — of these accidents occur in what the city calls the “High Injury Network,” or areas of intense traffic activity, a designation that includes the University Park area.
In an attempt to combat pedestrian-related collisions, Vision Zero has been targeting its education and enforcement efforts around these High Injury Networks, which comprise only 6 percent of the city’s streets. So far in 2015, LAPD officers have handed out more than 13,000 traffic citations downtown, according to the Los Angeles Times; around the University, there have been over 4,500, Kowalski said.
Responses to this enforcement method have been mixed. Though some, such as Anderson, believe existing laws prohibiting pedestrians from starting to cross after the countdown begins should be changed, others see it as a necessary safety enforcement method.
“I think it should stay the same; I think it’s a fair law,” said Armando Vildosola, a junior majoring in business administration. “Wait another two minutes and make life easier for the drivers — and probably safer for pedestrians.”
And some, such as Moore are caught between the two — believing that the law is necessary but that its enforcement is flawed.
“The stakes are very high in those collisions,” Moore said. “The pedestrians tend to lose, so I think it’s sensible to err on the side of conservatism and keep the current policy in place. But the question of how high the fine should be is a separate one, and there I think that there should definitely be a change.”