Police cracking down on jaywalking

Jon Wilcox By Jon Wilcox

June 27, 2017 at 10:46 p.m.
Updated June 27, 2017 at 5 p.m.

A jaywalker checks to make sure traffic is clear as he walks across Rio Grande Street.

A jaywalker checks to make sure traffic is clear as he walks across Rio Grande Street.   Nicolas Galindo for The Victoria Advocate

Spying a gap in the oncoming vehicles, Thomas Bonfonti, 36, stepped from the curb into early evening traffic and walked hurriedly across Houston Highway.

"If I sit down, I get harassed by the cops. I got to keep moving at all times," said Bonfonti, a homeless Victoria resident who was walking to H-E-B to refill a bottle with water.

Bonfonti's shortcut June 21 is but one recent example of jaywalking in Victoria. The Victoria Police Department is tackling the issue with a campaign of increased education and ticketing. Although officers are able to write tickets or give warnings using their own personal discretion, Victoria police will ticket jaywalkers more often.

Bonfonti, who was not spotted by police in this particular instance, crossed about 800 feet from the nearest crosswalk and less than 200 feet from where a 73-year-old Victoria pedestrian was killed by a passing car in April 2016.

The loosely defined term describes pedestrians' failure to yield the right of way to traffic.

"It is human nature to take the shortest route between two points," said Donald Reese, public works director.

City and police officials said they could not provide a list of crosswalks in the city or the number of jaywalking tickets issued.

Jaywalking is such a problem in Victoria, that police have identified a stretch of Houston Highway and East Rio Grande Street near North Navarro and Laurent streets as a problem area, said Sgt. William Bernard.

Victoria Police Chief J.J. Craig agreed.

"It's a real big problem," he said.Although Bonfonti agrees there is a problem, he said the issue is not him and other pedestrians but rather a lack of crosswalks and sidewalks inside city limits.

But crosswalks are expensive, and city planners must consider whether a street's specific characteristics are suitable, Reese said.

In his professional opinion, Reese said, the location where Bonfonti jaywalked is not a safe or suitable place for a signalized crosswalk.

Despite city budgetary limitations, education and enforcement by police are still options that are of vital importance, Craig said.

For 2014, 2015 and 2016, the number of pedestrians killed by vehicles per 100,000 people in Victoria was more than double a comparable statewide statistic, according to data from the Texas Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and U.S. Census Bureau.

And Victoria police are taking notice.

"It just seemed like (auto-pedestrian wrecks) were coming more often," said Lt. Eline Moya, department spokeswoman.

To diminish the increasing number of deaths and injuries, education is key, Craig said.

"(Some) pedestrians think the moment they enter that roadway - when they step off that curb - they are now somehow in this force field and that they can't be hurt," the police chief said.

Spearheading the education effort is the department's Traffic Safety Unit, a four-member group that specializes in traffic-related law, crimes and emergencies.

Words rather than tickets are often more effective in preventing jaywalking, said Senior Patrol Officer Bryan Knief, of the department's Traffic Safety Unit.

"If they don't want to be educated, then you can cite them after that," he said.

To disseminate their message, officers are leaving flyers at businesses, talking one-on-one with walkers and posting to social media.

Victoria has no city ordinance addressing jaywalking, but police officers look to Texas transportation Code Chapter 552, which is titled "Pedestrians."

"People think it's a silly little law, but it's dangerous," said Senior Patrol Officer Mark Hayden, Traffic Safety Unit member.

According to the Texas Transportation Code, vehicles must yield to pedestrians who cross at marked crosswalks or intersections with signalized traffic lights when the light facing the walkers is green. But pedestrians should not step off the curb so quickly that passing vehicles do not have time to yield.

Pedestrians who cross where there is no intersection or crosswalk should yield to traffic. And pedestrians who are between adjacent intersections with traffic signals "may cross only in a marked crosswalk," according to Section 552.005 of the Texas Transportation Code.

"If we do see instances where pedestrians endanger themselves or endanger the motoring public, we're going to cite them," Craig said. And the same applies for drivers, he said.

However unpleasant a ticket may be, the possibility of killed or injured pedestrians makes the department's new approach to jaywalking a necessity, Hayden said.

"It's heartbreaking," Hayden said. "It's made worse because we know that this could have been avoided a lot of times."

But some, such as Victoria homeless advocate Kim Pickens are not so convinced in the justice and effectiveness of the police department's campaign.

She worries that many of those who are guilty of jaywalking are those who are most vulnerable in Victoria - those who are homeless, vehicle-less or jobless, she said.

Jaywalking fines, even as low as $20, can be enough to send such a vulnerable person into a financial tailspin, she said.

"For somebody who is homeless, $20 is like $1 million," she said.

And considering the cost of fines for jaywalking - $160 with another $40 in court fees - paying off the ticket could be impossible for some, Pickens said.

While she agrees jaywalking is dangerous, Pickens also wonders whether the problem might be addressed from another way. To solve the issue, Victoria officials and planners should ask themselves why pedestrians choose to illegally cross in the first place, she said.

Taken even further, drivers might see how it feels to walk a block or two in the summer heat.

"It's not about being lazy," she said of jaywalking. "It's about being efficient."



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