On jaywalking and the casual ‘minor’ law breaking

I typically refuse to jaywalk (defined in NSW as crossing the road within 20 metres of a pedestrian crossing at the wrong time, or unsafe road crossing in general), especially when I’m on my own. When I’m travelling with a group of people I know, I occasionally succumb to the peer pressure as they (often) cross the road without thought. Sometimes, I will wait, and they will either wait with me or cross the road and look back questioningly, wondering why I’d be waiting.

Interestingly, I feel more comfortable waiting with people I know better, even if they are also looking back questioningly. When I’m on my own, I’ve been amused by several occasions where a stranger walking behind me walks in to me, and is confused as to why I’m waiting.

Why don’t I jaywalk? There are a few reasons. One is that I have been let off with a warning for jaywalking once before, and there are substantial fines that I don’t want to risk (up to $2,200 in NSW). I also don’t believe my time is so important that it’s worth either the money or the risk to life (e.g. if there is a car or bike I didn’t see and they swerve to miss me) except perhaps in an emergency. Choosing whether or not to jaywalk also seems to have a knock on effect where not jaywalking influences others around who might have otherwise jaywalked and vice versa (in my anecdotal observation).

What about when there is no one around? When there are definitely no cars, bikes, police, or people to see me and be influenced? As a matter of principle, I probably still wouldn’t. I believe a culture of casual non-compliance towards laws in general is bad, and condoning jaywalking strengthens this culture in a small but meaningful way.

I know people who see no problem with driving 10 km over the speed limit when there are no police around, and I think this falls in to the same category. It’s an unnecessary financial and safety risk which promotes to others and yourself a culture of not really caring about laws.

This is not to say that I am against law breaking entirely. I would happily break unjust laws, e.g. if there were say some strange quirk of the law where it was legal to abuse animals for pleasure or profit. But I don’t believe the law of jaywalking is unjust. I don’t believe the law against speeding or other safety laws like this are unjust, they exist to protect us and others.

In a world where humans and non-humans are still suffering immensely, is thinking about the ethics of jaywalking trivial? Maybe. But beside taking the 15 minutes to write this, it’s not really subtracting anything from my work to help humans/non-humans. I think ethical choices present themselves to us constantly throughout the day, and ignoring them is in itself a choice by omission. I’m sympathetic to the idea of decision fatigue or ethical fatigue, but I also believe thinking about the small things help us think about the big picture and be more ethical* people.

NB one may well argue that jaywalking and speeding laws are a bit arbitrary, and they are. Why is jaywalking in NSW 20 metres and not 50, or 10? Why is the speed limit often 60 km/hr and not 50, 70 or 62? I assume the relevant government body has made tradeoff decisions about safety, convenience, revenue and other factors, but I’m happy to trust the Australian government on these types of laws (not all!) to make a reasonable decision.

* I’m sure we all have different definitions of what this means!

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