Drivers who kill or maim pedestrians with their vehicles are still only rarely treated as criminals, as long as they are not drunk and do not flee the scene. Even that is sometimes not enough to merit serious charges.
It wasn't always like this. Browse through New York Times accounts of pedestrians dying after being struck by automobiles prior to 1930, and you'll see that in nearly every case, the driver is charged with something like "technical manslaughter." Across the country, drivers were held criminally responsible when they killed or injured people with their vehicles. [...]
The paper opined that even in the case of a child darting out into traffic, a driver who disclaimed responsibility was committing "the perjury of a murderer."
Norton explains that in the automobile's earliest years, the principles of common law applied to crashes. In the case of a collision, the larger, heavier vehicle was deemed to be at fault. The responsibility for crashes always lay with the driver. [...]
Local auto clubs and dealers recognized that cars would be a lot harder to sell if there was a cap on their speed. So they went into overdrive in their campaign against the initiative. They sent letters to every individual with a car in the city [...] The industry lobbied to change the law, promoting the adoption of traffic statutes to supplant common law. The statutes were designed to restrict pedestrian use of the street and give primacy to cars. The idea of "jaywalking" - a concept that had not really existed prior to 1920 - was enshrined in law.
He wondered about that inescapable word: pedestrian. If we were to find ourselves out hiking on a forest trail and spied someone approaching at a distance, he wanted to know, would we think to ourselves, "Here comes a pedestrian"?
Of course we wouldn't. That approaching figure would simply be a person. Pedestrian is a word born from opposition to other modes of travel; the Latin pedester, on foot, gained currency by its semantic tension with equester, on horse. But there is an implied -- indeed, synonymous -- pejorative. This dates from Ancient Greece. [...] In other words, not to be on a horse, flying or otherwise, was to be utterly unremarkable and mundane. To this day, Ronkin was intimating, the word pedestrian bears not only that slightly alien whiff, but the scars of condescension.
Simply by going out for a walk, I had become a strange being, studied by engineers, inhabiting environments whose physical features are determined by a rulebook-enshrined average 3 foot-per-second walking speed, my rights codified by signs. (Why not just write: "Stop for People"?) On those same signs in Savannah were often attached additional signs, advising drivers not to give to panhandlers (and to call 911 if physically intimidated), subtly equating walking with being exposed to an urban menace -- or perhaps being the menace.
Having taken all this information in, we would gingerly step into the marked crosswalk, that declaration of rights in paint, and try to gauge whether approaching vehicles would yield. They typically did not. Even in one of America's most "pedestrian-friendly" cities -- a seemingly innocent phrase that itself suddenly seemed strange to me -- one was always in danger of being relegated to a footnote.
Which is what walking in America has become: An act dwelling in the margins, an almost hidden narrative running beneath the main vehicular text. Indeed, the semantics of the term pedestrian would be a mere curiosity, but for one fact: America is a country that has forgotten how to walk. [...]
Despite these upsides, in an America enraptured by the cultural prosthesis that is the automobile, walking has become a lost mode, perceived as not a legitimate way to travel but a necessary adjunct to one's car journey, a hobby, or something that people without cars -- those pitiable "vulnerable road users," as they are called with charitable condescension -- do.