August 7, 2008 — The phenomenon of pedestrians stepping in front of moving cars while texting furiously on a handheld device or cell phone may seem brand new. For Peter Norton, a University of Virginia professor who has studied the historic relationship between pedestrians and motorists, it represents only the latest chapter in an old story.
“Every time you introduce a new technology, we have to figure out how it fits into the existing technological structure,” said Norton, author of “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.”
“We have this new thing called texting and this old thing called the street and we’re trying to figure out how they’re going to mix," he said. "Maybe one day when a solution is found, we’ll think that it was natural and obvious from day one. But it’s not now natural and obvious.”
Today it’s texting. A century ago it was reading books while crossing the street in traffic. Norton has several cartoons that illustrate that very subject — pedestrians with noses buried in books stepping in front of angry motorists.
“We’ll probably never know how big the problem of reading while crossing the street was,” Norton said. “But it was certainly an issue that was being talked about.”
One lesson that Norton believes should be learned from past skirmishes between drivers and pedestrians is that passing laws and assessing fines are not the solution. Jaywalking, he said, is a case in point.
The first reaction to problems with pedestrians crossing streets wherever they pleased was to pass laws against the practice. But the laws were too hard to enforce, and police cracking down on a practice that people think is normal or harmless mostly engenders resentment against the police.
“I have news articles of women beating police with parasols for having been ticketed for crossing in the middle of a street,” Norton said. “Before you have a law enforcement crackdown, you have to have people discredit the practice.”
The second reaction, Norton said, was to direct ridicule at the offending pedestrians by labeling them with a new term of derision.
“The epithet ‘jaywalker’ brought free-spirited pedestrianism into disrepute,” said Norton. To spread this new term of abuse, several cities used Boy Scouts to hand out cards to pedestrians telling them that they had just become “jaywalkers.”
“A lot of people resented the cards,” Norton said. “But it succeeded in the sense that everybody learned what jaywalking was. By 1924, less than 10 years after the word had been used to describe the practice, it was in an American English dictionary.”
Norton points to the term litterbug as a comparable phrase but adds that not every effort at finding such a word succeeds.
“When reckless driving was a new concept, AAA had a contest to come up with a word for reckless driver,” he said. “The contest winner was ‘flivverboob.’ That didn’t stick, obviously.”
So what about text-messengers who choose to keep their eyes glued to electronic devices while walking into traffic?
“Maybe ‘textlemmings,’ or something like it, would bring the necessary sting of disapproval to roaming texters,” Norton said.