Cities throughout California have been upgrading their pedestrian signals to modern “countdown” style displays. You have probably seen them: They show the amount of time remaining for a pedestrian to cross the street. Studies confirm that countdown signals are effective for reducing collisions, because pedestrians know when it is safe to begin crossing.
Unfortunately, California law has not kept up with this new technology. CVC 21456, the “jaywalking” law, was enacted back in 1981. In those days, there was no countdown, just a flashing hand. As a result, there is a lot of confusion about when a pedestrian is permitted to cross:
The countdown begins when the “hand” on the signal switches from white to a blinking red and the timer starts ticking down toward zero. It seems that California law says you’re not allowed to set foot in the street once the “Don’t Walk” signal or the red hand begins flashing, even if there is still plenty of time on the countdown.
Well, who knew that? Many pedestrians assume — wrongly, it turns out — that the countdown is designed to tell you how much time you have to clear the intersection so you can make an informed decision on whether to cross the street or wait. “Fifteen seconds? I can make it if I walk fast.” “Five seconds? I’ll wait until the next cycle.”
In most cities, police are taking a common-sense approach to the countdown signals. They will only give a ticket if a pedestrian crosses against the solid-hand phase.
One big exception is the city of Los Angeles.
The LA police department has giving citations for jaywalking, especially in the crowded downtown area, to pedestrians crossing during the countdown phase:
A Downtown News story last week reported that Los Angeles police officers have been ticketing jaywalkers in the city’s historic core and the financial district. Penalties range from a hefty $190 to an even heftier $250. “We’re heavily enforcing pedestrian violations because they’re impeding traffic and causing too many accidents and deaths,” Lt. Lydia Leos told the newspaper.
Fair enough. Pedestrians, like drivers, can be careless — or reckless — and that can be a real safety problem. But what’s causing controversy is that the Los Angeles Police Department is enforcing the letter of the law and ticketing walkers who step into the street during the “countdown.”
This is ridiculous, and it has been going on for years. The Legislature needs to eliminate this ambiguity from CVC 21456. Otherwise, what’s the point of having a countdown signal?