Who Knew? The battle for supremacy on the streets steered Cincinnati to strict new jaywalking laws

CINCINNATI - All too often, we hear of tragedies involving pedestrians being struck by cars while crossing the street--a problem dating back to the invention of the automobile.

Cincinnati played a significant role in developing stricter laws to protect people walking through the right-of-way and helped define the term “jaywalking.”

What is it? “Jaywalking” was defined by Cincinnati
Where can I see it? Any street in Cincinnati
Who knew? Dave Bossart, Cincinnati Heritage Programs

A pedestrian weighs his street-crossing options in Over-the-Rhine. (Photo by P. Malott)

We asked Dave Bossart of Cincinnati Heritage Programs to tell us more about how this came about.

How did cars impact the way people viewed streets?

One hundred years ago, streets were used not just by cars, but also by pedestrians, livestock, wagons, horses, bicycles and rail transportation. The automobile was viewed as an intruder on an already-congested pathway and caused resentment.

How were pedestrians affected?

If a pedestrian was struck by a car in the 1920s, the vehicle’s driver was held criminally responsible for any injuries or death. It was a public matter that would often include a solemn parade or the mayor dedicating a memorial.

Today, these incidents are private matters grieved by the family. Drivers typically are not charged with a crime, unless they have been driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol or they flee the accident scene.

What was the turning point?

In 1923, Cincinnatians became fed up with the number of pedestrian deaths and created a referendum in favor of a rule that would require all vehicles in the city to be fitted with a device limiting speed to 25 miles per hour. It gathered 7,000 signatures.

How did automakers react?

Auto dealers campaigned aggressively against the measure, realizing that cars would be difficult to sell if their speed was limited. The dealers sent letters to every citizen condemning the idea and comparing it to communism. They also hired female models to usher men to the polls and vote against the issue.

What was the outcome?

Despite the failure of the referendum, the auto industry lobbied to change the law, giving primary use of the roadway to cars and restricting pedestrian access. The term “jaywalking,” which was described as a pedestrian crossing the road without regard to approaching traffic, was defined into law.

Connect with WCPO Contributor Paige E. Malott on Twitter: @Paigetastic01  and check out her blog CincyWhimsy.com

Check back next week for another edition of "Who Knew?" If you have a tip, idea or question email: holly.edgell@wcpo.com.

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