In Atlanta last April, a woman named Raquel Nelson, with her three children in tow, jaywalked. They were hit by a car and her four-year-old son was killed. Astonishingly, she was convicted of vehicular homicide, although public outrage has helped her secure a new trial.

This is an extreme example of something we see in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and around the country: blaming the victim when our automobile-dominated transportation system, which is inherently lethal, kills or injures someone just trying to walk from one place to another in the urban environment.

Raquel Nelson did nothing wrong when she jaywalked. In all likelihood, the motorist driving the car that killed her son was breaking the speed limit. But even if, although I find this hard to imagine, the driver was doing everything they could reasonably be expected to do, the proper conclusion in that case is that no one is to blame. It is just another tragic instance in which our insane transportation system proved to be far too dangerous.

What is not widely understood is that, in North Carolina at least, jaywalking (by common application of the term, meaning walking across the street where there is no marked crosswalk) is not illegal. The only relevant law I am aware of is one against impeding traffic.

So if I walk directly across from the Internationalist to the Mediterranean Deli, rather than walk all the way down to the intersection, wait for the light, and then backtrack, this is not illegal as long as I don't, for example, cause a motorist to slam on the brakes.

I hope OP folks will sign the petition calling for a full pardon for Raquel Nelson. There is additional relevant information here. I also hope that our local electeds will bear in mind, when policy issues about roadway design and law enforcement come up, that there is nothing wrong with jaywalking, that there should be better enforcement of speed limits, and that, as long as you think that the demands for parking and roadways made by motorists should be accommodated, this is just perpetuating a fundamentally irrational and deadly transportation system.

The relevance of all this to Carolina North is that it provides a rare opportunity, perhaps like none elsewhere in the country, to start from scratch in urban and transportation design. Pedestrians could be provided pathways separated from any streets, and the development could include a car-free zone. So far, the Chapel Hill town council has not pushed the University hard enough to include such design features. 

Total votes: 291


 "What is not widely understood is that, in North Carolina at least,
jaywalking (by common application of the term, meaning walking across
the street where there is no marked crosswalk) is not illegal. The only
relevant law I am aware of is one against impeding traffic."James, I believe that there is a NC statue, 20-174, that prohibits jaywalking in some instances(see below).  I had found this years ago when I was concerned about a jaywalking problem in front of Duke Hospital.  But if my memory serves me correctly this statue is never enforced because there was no penalty attached to it.  Gerry Cohen may be able to shed some light on whether this statue is still on the books and why it is/is not enforced.

§ 20‑174.  Crossing at other than crosswalks;
walking along highway.

(a)        Every pedestrian crossing a roadway at any point other than
within a marked crosswalk or within an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection
shall yield the right‑of‑way to all vehicles upon the roadway.

(b)        Any pedestrian crossing a roadway at a point where a
pedestrian tunnel or overhead pedestrian crossing has been provided shall yield
the right‑of‑way to all vehicles upon the roadway.

(c)        Between adjacent intersections at which traffic‑control
signals are in operation pedestrians shall not cross at any place except in a
marked crosswalk.

(d)       Where sidewalks are provided, it shall be unlawful for any
pedestrian to walk along and upon an adjacent roadway. Where sidewalks are not
provided, any pedestrian walking along and upon a highway shall, when
practicable, walk only on the extreme left of the roadway or its shoulder
facing traffic which may approach from the opposite direction. Such pedestrian
shall yield the right‑of‑way to approaching traffic.

(e)        Notwithstanding the provisions of this section, every driver
of a vehicle shall exercise due care to avoid colliding with any pedestrian
upon any roadway, and shall give warning by sounding the horn when necessary,
and shall exercise proper precaution upon observing any child or any confused
or incapacitated person upon a roadway. (1937, c. 407, s. 135; 1973, c. 1330, s. 33.) While I strongly disagree with that conviction in Atlanta, I do believe that there are situations where jaywalking is totally inappropriate.  For instance, at certain times of the year, at about 6-7 AM, a car headed east on Erwin Road directly in front of Duke Hospital will begin a slight incline which faces the driver directly into a bright, blinding early morning sun.  Employees in a hurry to get to work often opt to cross Erwin Road from the parking deck at points 50-150 feet from the signalized crosswalk.  They often are stepping out from beyond a line of west-bound traffic  directly into the path of the eastbound vehicles whose drivers are trying to deal with that sun directly in their eyes.So not only are these jaywalkers putting their own lives at risk but they are exposing the drivers to both physical and psychological risk (I think many of us would feel quite badly if we were to maim or kill a pedestrian, even if we weren't at fault).  So while I think drivers need to be prepared to yield at all times to pedestrians (and bicyclists) I think pedestrians (and bicyclists) also have an obligation to not put themselves in unnecessary risk.I totally agree with you that we should be doing a lot more with our planning and design to separate our motorized vehicles from pedestrians at least.    


Thanks for this information. Of course, I could be wrong in what I said in the paragraph you quoted; I was acting on information provided to me by a local lawyer. In any case, to use a phrase I have coined, it is better to get it right than to be right. Perhaps Mr. Cohen can give us the final verdict.The only clause in the statute you mentioned that contradicts what I said is (c); the others comport with my understanding that the only illegality is impeding traffic (or not yielding right-of-way). This clause applies to the case of streets between intersections that have traffic-control signals.Clause (c) would apply to my West Franklin Street example. But it is clearly unreasonable to expect someone to walk all the way down to the intersection near Panera, wait, and then double back to get from, in my example, the Internationalist to the Med. Deli.I would say that clause (c) should be repealed, and that we should ask seriously why the law so often gives the right-of-way to vehicles over people on foot. As we learned in the case of the Merritt Crossing, there is not enough respect given to the principle of pedestrian rights-of-way. (Kudos again to Mark Chilton for his efforts in that case, by the way.)Naturally, I don't disagree with you that sometimes jaywalking is done in ways that are reckless. But sometimes does not mean always, and jaywalking per se is not unsafe. I am not in favor of being reckless. I am an advocate of safe jaywalking. Any laws against jaywalking per se should not be enforced.James Coley

So one online source tells us that "[a]ll state vehicle codes state that pedestrians may cross at a point other than a crosswalk, but must yield to traffic when doing so. Some state and local ordinances prohibit crossing away from a crosswalk between two adjacent signalized intersections ..." This seems to be consistent with the statute cited by George C., and North Carolina law seems to be pretty typical.It is true that jaywalking per se is not illegal in North Carolina. It is illegal only in the special case of streets between stop-lights. However, this is hardly an unusual case in the urban environment. But the more important questions are about whether the bias in favor of the automobile in our laws is justifiable, and about the best enforcement policies.My main concern is that, even in places like Chapel Hill and Carrboro where officials and police might be expected to be more thoughtful, there is too much of this mentality that the jaywalker is a trouble-maker, and that pedestrians must submit to being shunted around like cattle or face the consequences. The outrage in Atlanta is but an extreme instance of the application of this automobile-dominance mentality.A more enlightened view, I think, is to realize that jaywalkers are just people trying to get where they are going in the most natural way, and are almost always careful to jaywalk safely. The danger to them is far greater than the physical or psychological danger they pose to automobile drivers. And look around you. Just about everybody violates 20-174(c) in downtown Chapel Hill and in downtown Carrboro, including oftentimes uniformed police officers. There is nothing wrong with this.We need better enforcement of speed limits for cars, and when a pedestrian is killed or injured, we should not blame the victim. Very similar observations apply to bicyclists.James Coley

"A more enlightened view, I think, is to realize that jaywalkers are just people trying to get where they are going in the most natural way, and are almost always careful to jaywalk safely. " BS.  Here's the alternative perspective, particularly applicable in a college town.  This town has created a sense of entitlement to those on bike and on foot.  Way too many pedestrians and bikers conduct themselves as if they are immune.  This is evidenced in bikers routinely blowing through red lights, turning left across traffic, and other ways to clearly endanger themselves.  Pedestrians (and many, many of these are college students) are bopping up and down the road, listening to their I-pods, and texting or surfing the web on their smart phones and paying no attention to their surroundings.I'm not a neanderthal that says you need to stay off my road while I'm driving.  While I am behind the wheel, I have an obligation to keep myself and my family safe, and be cognizant of threats to myself and threats to others around me, be it other vehicles, bikers, or pedestrians.  I am doing this behind a 2-ton killing machine, travelling, even in town limits, at up to 35 mph.  I have enough potential threats around at me at all times when driving . . . the cross walk, while not "impenetrable steel walls", serves an immeasurable purpose: it is a visual stimulus, a shot to the senses, that screams "hey, you need to watch out, you have no idea what fool is about to dart out in front of you here."I am MORE than happy to share the road with everyone: fellow drivers, motorcyclists, bicycles, scooters, parking enforcement carts, buses, and, yes, pedestrians too.  However, just as I am (rightfully) expected to follow the "rules of the road", SO ARE THE REST OF YOU.  I'm never going to intentionally run over, or even scare, a pedestrian or bicyclist.  But a pedestrian can stop, quite literally, on a dime.  A cycle, what, maybe 5 feet?  10 feet?  I CAN'T, even at 20 mph.Walkers - cross at the crosswalk.Bikers - extend me the same courtesy in following the "rules of road" that you expect me to extend to you.These people have every obligation in ensuring their personal safety as I do. 

In this town, 90% of transportation space is given over to automobiles. There are precious few separated bike paths, a few bike lanes, and in the rest bicyclists are expected to share the lane with the aforementioned 2-ton killing machine. An unfortunately small proportion of Chapel Hill streets have sidewalks, and for the most part, the timing of traffic lights is intended to allow automobiles to proceed most efficiently, not to allow pedestrians to maximize the speed of their transit. With the decks stacked against pedestrians and bicyclists, it's not a real surprise that sometimes people on foot or on bike will cut corners to try to speed their journey.As a relatively frequent bicyclist, I'll admit to running a red light here or there. But here's an example. I'm heading west on Cameron Ave., crossing Columbia. The light turns red. There are ten cars waiting to go straight down Cameron, and there's a lane to cross Colubmia because there are no cars coming. I can wait out the light cycle, probably sucking on a car's exhaust, and then, when the light turns green, head out in the line of cars and turn to keep as close as I can to the curb so a car in a hurry doesn't take me out as it tries to apss me. Or, I cross when it's red, and I can get a head start with no cars on my tail and without inhaling autmobile fumes. (Or, if I scoot to the front of the line, I can feel the glare of cars knowing they're going to be slowed down by the pokey bicyclist.) I'll cross the red light every time.As for jaywalking -- if I need to catch the bus home, and the next bus doesn't leave for 20 minutes? Yea, I'll try to jaywalk. Sorry. If you're in a neighborhood heavily populated with walkers, you'll have people try to take over the street -- same thing happens in New York City? Cars need to deal with it. A good chunk of the people I see in cars are chatting away on their phones or texting away, so the inattentiveness of some pedestrians is not the great societal problem that needs addressing. If there are lots of inattentive pedestrians around, the solution is to drive slower.

Sorry, Geoff, we're just going to have to agree to disagree.  Cross the red light every time?  I'm fine with that - it's your decision (frankly, I'd like you to pay the same obsene ticket that I'd be liable for in a vehicle, but that's a different story).  But if you time your crossing incorrectly, and a driver travelling the legal speed limit doesn't have time to stop, that's your problem.  And you don't need to apologize for jaywalking -- I just want to acknowledge the reality that you've consciously and deliberately upped your risk in the situation.But, no, I will come nowhere near agreeing that your last sentence is the correct and simple answer.  Sure, drivers could do a lot more - put down cell phones, turn off radio, have kids FINALLY stop talking.  You want me in my vehicle to conduct myself in a manner appropriate to minimizing risks to others.  I am 100% on board with that.  I merely ask for the EXACT SAME consideration, that pedestrian/cyclist conduct themselves in a manner appropriate to minimizing risks to themselves.  That does include being an "attentive" pedestrian.

Hey Chris:Just a couple of further thoughts. One, regarding my bike crossing despite red light "hypothetical," that's a situation where the law in NC doesn't currently accomodate the situation that is, in fact, safer. I don't agree that bikes should speed on through a red light without looking. But if they're stopped or poking along (so that they don't need to put their foot down), and there's no traffic (which is easy to judge at that intersection), it's more efficient for everyone for bikes to continue through the intersection. A cyclist who stops in line will slow everyone down; a cyclist who pulls up next to the car runs the risk of being hit by a right-turning car who doesn't notice the neighborhing cyclist. (Of course, that's not an issue at that particular intersection.) There are some jurisdictions that actually allow this -- or so I think; a brief search didn't find any.As for pedestrians, I don't think the epidemic of inattentiveness is as bad as you assert. But the fact is that pepole in cars are given every possible advantage, and they can't be hurt by pedestrians, so steps to improve pedestrian & automobile safety need to be focused on cars and their drivers. Cars crossing on red lights have killed many people who were not at fault. Bicycles crossing on red lights have injured many many many fewer.

I want to respond to the last sentence of the first paragraph of the post by Chris: "And you don't need to apologize for jaywalking -- I just want to acknowledge the reality that you've consciously and deliberately upped your risk in the situation."But it simply is not the case that jaywalking per se increases risk. Sometimes it does, if somebody does it wrong, but usually it does not. I have heard that, statistically, the chance of getting hit by a car is actually higher when people use crosswalks. To return to my example, if you are at the Internationalist and want to get to the Mediterranean Deli, it is fine if you wait for a safe gap in car traffic and then walk straight across West Franklin Street. This is the kind of jaywalking I defend. People do this all the time, and they have every right to.Here is a good article on Slate from a couple of years ago that makes many of the points I wanted to bring up in this thread.James Coley

I will do some research in the morning. Another important issue is whether there is a local ordinance prohibiting jaywalking beyond the State law. The most important thing - the pedestrian may be right - dead right

GS 20-174 is still in effect, and other than subsection (d) which does not deal with jaywalking, it has not been amended since 1937. I think at that time you had to honk when passing a cow. I search the online code of ordinances at municode.com and did not find anything other than one that requires persons crossing at a signaled intersecvtion to cross at the crosswalkSec. 21-8. - Traffic-control signals.(A)Whenever traffic is controlled by traffic-control signals exhibiting the words "Go", "Caution", or "Stop", or exhibiting differently colored lights, successively one at a time, the following colors only shall be used, and said terms and lights shall indicate as follows: (1)Green alone, or "Go": (a)Vehicular traffic facing the signal may proceed straight through, or turn right or left unless a sign prohibits either such turn. But vehicular traffic shall yield the right-of-way to other vehicles and to pedestrians who happen to be lawfully within the intersection. (b)Pedestrians facing the signal may proceed across the roadway within the crosswalk area, whether marked or not.(2)Yellow alone, or "Caution", when shown following the green or "Go" signal: (a)Vehicular traffic facing the signal shall stop before entering the nearest crosswalk at the intersection; if such stop cannot be made in safety, a vehicle may be driven cautiously through the intersection. (b)Pedestrians facing such signal are thereby warned that there will not be sufficient time to safely cross a roadway; and pedestrians then starting to cross shall yield the right-of-way to all vehicles. (3)Red alone, to "Stop": (a)Vehicular traffic facing the signal shall stop before entering the nearest crosswalk at an intersection, or at such other point as may be indicated by a clearly visible line, and shall remain standing until green or "Go" is shown alone. (b)No pedestrian facing such signal shall enter the roadway unless he can do so without interfering with any vehicular traffic.(c)At any intersection where a sign reading "Right Turn on Red After Stop" is properly erected, vehicular traffic may make a right turn against the red light provided that each vehicle must first stop before entering the intersection, then enter cautiously only from the right hand traffic lane and make a right turn. Right-of-way shall be yielded to any vehicle crossing with the green light, or pedestrians. The following locations are approved: Raleigh Road (N.C. 54) at the intersection with Country Club Road, westbound traffic only; South Road at the entrance to the Bell Tower Parking Lot, eastbound traffic only


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