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Sunday, October 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Danny Westneat

Saving the city from jaywalkers

Seattle Times staff columnist

Mark Capps is new to town. So he wasn't aware of the priority we place on fighting crime around here.

He is now. The 42-year-old ad-agency director learned when he stepped into the crosswalk at Fifth and Pike downtown, just as the "Don't Walk" hand started to flash. He made it across the street before the stoplight turned red. But that level of compliance doesn't cut it around here. We follow laws to the letter. A cop slapped Capps with a $46 jaywalking ticket.

"I couldn't believe it," Capps says. "You can't cross the street here, in the crosswalk, even if you still have the light?"

Apparently not. It's right there in code 11.50.280: "pedestrians facing a steady or flashing 'Don't Walk' word legend or hand symbol shall not enter the roadway ... ."

Capps says he was the victim of a "jaywalking sting." Two cops stood at either end of the crosswalk. He watched as eight people were fined in five minutes, most for obliviously walking against the flashing hand.

It turns out Capps is part of a trend. The jaywalk jackboots — traffic cops who once ticketed Seattle walkers into a cowering, and often pointless, obedience — are back.

Police are on track to write 2,600 jaywalking tickets this year, the most in nearly two decades. It's up 40 percent over last year and triple the number in the early '90s.

That was back when police realized the city's infamous zero-tolerance policy for jaywalkers didn't do much other than irritate the hell out of people. There were years in the '70s and '80s when police wrote 8,000 jaywalking tickets — one for every 70 residents, the most zealous enforcement rate in the country. Yet it wasn't making walkers any safer.

Police insist they have not reactivated the jaywalk jackboots. All the tickets this year are a "collateral result" of the city's campaign for pedestrian safety, which is supposed to focus on nabbing bad drivers.

"Officers are out there to make sure drivers go through intersections properly," said Debra Brown of the Seattle police. "But they will write tickets if pedestrians break any laws."

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She said pedestrians shouldn't enter a crosswalk when the "Don't Walk" light is flashing because then cars never get a chance to turn, in some places causing huge traffic tie-ups.

"We hear from drivers that you can't make a right turn downtown because of so many jaywalkers," Brown said.

Sigh. Other cities don't obsess over errant walkers, and function fine. And didn't I just hear police leaders saying that Seattle is a big city now, so they need more officers? You know, for fighting actual crime?

Like, say, the drug market two blocks from where Capps got stung. One afternoon, in an alley near Third and Pike, I watched as two men sat in an idling Oldsmobile and passed packets to walk-up customers.

No cops in sight. But a security guy rode up on a bike, sending the Olds rumbling slowly down the alley. A few minutes later, it came around the block and pulled back into the alley, where the whole enterprise started up again.

Seems the drug dealers are having no trouble making right turns downtown.

Danny Westneat's column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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