Does Seattle need jaywalking laws?

It may not be something you’ve thought much about, but it’s a question that councilmember Lorena Gonzalez is asking, and we commend her for asking it.

Currently, a jaywalking citation in Seattle comes with a $56 ticket, and as a recent report in the Seattle Times found, they are issued to a disproportionate percentage of the city’s African-American population.

The discussion begins with the simple question of what the purpose of a jaywalking law is. Ideally, you’re discouraging a potentially dangerous action by attaching a negative consequence to it. You know you may get ticketed if you get caught, so you don’t do it. Supposedly, you discourage it in the first place because not crossing in a crosswalk, or crossing against a light could have deadly consequences if you’re not paying attention.

The question then becomes if the law actually helps stem that behavior or makes pedestrians safer.

In most cases, it seems unlikely.

Think of it this way: If you cross the street in the middle of a downtown block during a gap in traffic, looking both ways before you do so, are you engaging in dangerous activity? Most would say no, and you could easily argue that what you did was as safe, if not safer, than walking to a crosswalk to get from one side of the street to the other. That argument would not hold up if a police officer saw you doing it, however, and you could be ticketed.

In that regard, it doesn’t feel like the statute serves an appropriate purpose.

The other part of it is the sheer manpower on the part of the police department, at a time when the city is looking to add 200 officers over attrition to its current force by 2019. Simply put, enforcing jaywalking laws doesn’t seem like a great use of any officer’s time. It seems like officers agree, with the number of tickets issued dropping to just 160 last year, down from more than 450 in 2010.

That circles back to the fact that, every year since 2010, African-Americans received at least 20 percent of the tickets issued, despite being just seven percent of the city’s population. It’s worth delving further into why that’s been the case.

Also worthy of discussion: Does the threat of a $56 fine discourage unsafe pedestrian behavior any more than public awareness campaign would?

It’s too early in the conversation to say whether decriminalizing jaywalking entirely is the right approach.

But it is time to think about it.