The True Origin Of The Term Jaywalker

As all drivers know, the rules of the road can be strict. At their core, though, they're intended to protect the safety of all road-users. The Association For Safe International Road Travel reports that about 3,700 people are killed on roads every day across the globe, making for an approximate total of 1.35 million annual deaths. Over half of these fatal incidents happen to pedestrians, cyclists or motorcyclists, in other words: those who are most vulnerable on the road. 

While drivers must be vigilant at all times to keep themselves and others safe, pedestrians have a huge part to play too. The busiest roads can be very difficult to cross safely, so designated crossings should always be used where available.

Inevitably, though, some pedestrians just won't pay due care and attention when crossing the road. Such pedestrians are sometimes called jaywalkers, and here are the curious true origins of the term.

From jay-drivers to jaywalkers

According to Merriam-Webster, jay-drivers came before jaywalkers. The former was a term used for those who didn't drive on the correct side of the road, and it's easy to see how pedestrians could find themselves in terrible danger by such reckless and unpredictable behavior.

In October 1905, the Kansas City Star employed the term jaywalker for one of the very first times, in reference to pedestrians meeting each other in the street. The outlet reportedly said that if pedestrians didn't want to be called 'jay walkers,' then they should walk on the right side of the sidewalk when they were meeting pedestrians going in the opposite direction.

In this context, "jay" reportedly referred to "a greenhorn, or rube". Per Slate, jaywalker was originally a derogatory term for those who were unaccustomed to bustling roads, as they began to get busier. Whether for convenience or through ignorance, intentionally or unintentionally, jaywalking continues to be a dangerous practice.

The crime of jaywalking

Over the years, it seems, the term has come to commonly mean people openly and intentionally flouting road safety rules and practices, rather than being seemingly oblivious to the intentions of their fellow pedestrians.

Per How Stuff Works, jaywalking can be defined as crossing a road anywhere other than at a specific crosswalk. It remains a crime in many places, and the precedent was set very early in that regard. Crosswalks were introduced to roads in the United States in 1911, and although they were few and far between, to begin with, they quickly became more common. Within two decades or so, jaywalking was a crime.

It remains a thorny issue. As the City of Santa Clarita points out, pedestrians aren't necessarily safer because they're at such a crosswalk; they may, for instance, take fewer precautions simply because they're at a designated place to cross, while not all crosswalks have lights and other protections.