Crossing the street at a red light. Dodging cars to streak across the road. Walking anywhere on the street with a casual disregard for the white stripes of safety.
It’s called jaywalking, and Montreal natives are especially good at it. In fact, they’re so good, they’re notorious, carelessly crossing busy city streets and treating red lights as if they were merely a suggestion.
But that may change as Montreal police are cracking down on what some say is a part of this city’s culture.
A new safety blitz began this month, challenging the local police to spread the word about this potentially deadly habit. For the past two weeks, Montreal police could be seen handing out pamphlets instead of tickets to jaywalkers. They are warning the culprits that, starting in mid-October, they will start penalizing the guilty.
Jaywalking has been a growing problem in Montreal for years, and although several attempts have been made to curb the behaviour, city and police officials have not been able to solve the problem.
“As long as you can look across the streets and see there are no cars coming, I don’t really see a problem with it,” said Patricia Walker, a mother who had just finished pushing her stroller across Ste. Catherine St. on a red light during rush hour.
Even some tourists visiting Montreal appear to adopt the city’s relaxed attitude about the local traffic signals. New Yorker Jessica Johnson told The Concordian that, while she doesn’t jaywalk at home, she felt comfortable doing it in Montreal.
“I would never jaywalk in New York because they would run me over down there, but I feel somewhat safer here,” she said.
But pedestrians aren’t the only targets of this campaign. Drivers who don’t respect pedestrian lanes while waiting at a red light risk getting a ticket. The same goes for cars caught carelessly blocking incoming traffic while waiting to cross on a yellow light.
“We are taking it more and more seriously because of the number of deaths in Montreal,” said a police officer handing out pamphlets. This year alone, 18 pedestrians were killed in Montreal.
The term “jaywalker” originated in the United States and can be traced back to 1917. The word ‘jay’ was slang for someone who was stupid, dull or unsophisticated. Rural people who stupidly ignored traffic regulations were referred to as ‘jaywalkers’ in newly industrialized American cities like Boston.
In January, Montreal’s police department announced they hired 133 new officers to enforce the law to unruly drivers, pedestrians and cyclists, but Montrealers responded with a collective roll of the eyes.
But is it really a good idea to spend our budget on this recurring issue? Paul Chambleau, head of this safety project, seems to think so. “Our goal isn’t to give millions and millions of dollars in tickets,” he said, “but to raise the awareness of this issue. We simply want the natives of Montreal to respect the law and not get themselves killed.”
Unfortunately, despite the officers’ visible presence, many Montreal pedestrians are still ignoring the rules of the road.
“It’s quite bad on the island of Montreal, and we’re not going to change it right away. It’s going to take a while but we’re trying,” another officer said.
To force the issue, police officers will be posted on several downtown street corners next week, handing out $37 fines for crossing the street illegally.