Jaywalking no joke to Iowa police

IOWA CITY, Iowa – As University of Iowa senior Aaron Myers stepped into the intersection of Clinton and Washington Streets, he nestled his nose into a copy of “Twenty Years at Hull House.”

He didn’t look up again until he had reached the sidewalk on the other side.

Although Myers trotted away this time without a citation, he could have faced a nearly $70 fine because of toughened police enforcement that now targets jaywalkers, which law enforcement calls an effort to boost pedestrian safety.

Since March, police in Iowa City, Iowa, have issued more jaywalking tickets than in the past two years combined, citing pedestrians for a crime many interviewed considered too minor to deserve punishment.

“I think, in some circumstances, [ticketing jaywalkers] is reasonable, but, in most cases, it’s ridiculous,” said Myers, who said he routinely crosses against the light when he isn’t obstructing traffic.

In 2004, Iowa City police issued six jaywalking citations. In 2005, one person was ticketed. This year, Iowa City police Sgt. Doug Hart said, officers have issued eight tickets as of last week for the violation.

Officer Ed McMartin said the bulk of his fight to curb jaywalking has involved cautioning dozens of pedestrians.

“Only in the most blatant of violations” did he issue a fine, the officer said. “A lot of times, you have swarms of pedestrians who go against traffic lights, and it’s frustrating to drivers.”

With students back in town, police were reminded to be vigilant and watch for traffic violations that could be dangerous, McMartin said.

“Eventually, the odds are someone’s going to get hit,” he said, adding that since he has started handing out citations, he has noticed a drop in the number of violations downtown.

The total cost of a jaywalking ticket, including court fees and surcharges, is approximately $69.

Though police champion the endeavor, many students complained about the increased enforcement.

“It’s hard enough for students to pay tuition,” said UI junior Chris Pryor. “Now [the city] wants to charge people for a petty crime?”

But Hart said money from jaywalking citations would “not even be a drop in the bucket of the city’s budget.”

As for the UI, Charles Green, the university’s assistant vice president for the UI police, said he didn’t remember his officers ever giving a ticket for jaywalking.

“It has just become a part of the culture,” he added.

Residents need to pay attention to why police are ticketing jaywalkers, Hart said, adding people cited on Aug. 22 were told by an officer not to cross against the light.

They were ticketed only if they ignored the officer and crossed anyway, he said.

“The motorists are just ecstatic about the [pedestrian tickets],” he said. “They say it’s about time.”

But UI junior Byron Stokes said motorists and pedestrians cramming downtown Iowa City could coexist without needing jaywalking citations to force the peace.

“I think we have to be careful of other drivers on the street, but I think it’s outrageous we get ticketed walking to class,” he said. “I always believed pedestrians had the right of way.”