The term jaywalking actually covers a multitude of pedestrian infractions, mostly involving a failure to cross city streets at designated intersections or crosswalks. It can be considered a misdemeanor if a police officer considers the pedestrian's actions to be a deliberate violation of an existing ordinance. Otherwise, the officer may choose to issue a stern warning against future infractions. The fine for a ticket can be surprisingly substantial, similar to misdemeanor moving violations for drivers.
Jaywalking can be a very hazardous practice for pedestrians and drivers alike. Drivers may anticipate other drivers returning to their parked vehicles, but they may not be prepared for pedestrians suddenly crossing the street between those parked cars. Even if the traffic conditions are slow in one direction of traffic, a jaywalker may find himself or herself trapped in the middle of the street when vehicles appear in the opposite lane.
Another danger inherent is a sudden change in a pedestrian's direction. Intersections with crosswalks are designed to allow pedestrian traffic to cross laterally, not diagonally. Vehicle traffic still flows legally in the opposing direction, but some pedestrians choose to cross diagonally against traffic as an illegal time saver. Crossing the street against the flow of traffic or changing directions in midstream are perhaps the most flagrant violations of jaywalking ordinances.
The origin of the term is said to coincide with the arrival of the "horseless carriage" around the turn of the 20th century. The word "jay" had several different connotations at the time, but the one which seemed to describe the dangerous practice best implied an unsophisticated rube. Crossing the street haphazardly or ignoring other pedestrian rules in a large city would be considered typical behavior for an uneducated "jay." Therefore, many early ordinances adopted this slang term to describe the violation itself. Though the derisive slang term fell out of favor decades ago, the name stuck to describe the ill-advised practice of crossing a street between intersections.