Gringo gets busted


When the police handed us receipts it was clear this wasn't some sort of shakedown. Though it seemed hard to believe, we were busted for a crime I'd heard rumors about but never actually seen enforced: jaywalking.

Photo: archive of ČRo 7 - Radio Prague
The officers at the corner of Resslova and Vysehradska near Charles Square had as much skill with English as I have with Czech, i.e. none whatsoever. They didn't really need it, though, to make their message clear.

While one officer gripped my passport and my friend's EU driver's license, the other wrote down our fine, "200 crowns," or about nine dollars. Time to pay up.

We were guilty. Flagrantly so. Pete, who was visiting from England, and I had cut directly across four empty lanes on Resslova, hopping over the waist-high red-and-white fence that corrals the street from the sidewalk along the way.

This had saved us valuable seconds we might otherwise have lost if we'd been like every other normal human being and used the passage underneath the intersection. It also had landed us face-to-face with Prague's finest.

When the officer demanded identification, I thought he was joking. Jaywalking is a way of life back in my sweet home Chicago. Aggressive walking isn't just tolerated, it's encouraged. Hurried businessmen and women who dart into intersections and bring cabbies, buses and bicycle messengers alike to ear-screeching halts, those people aren't criminals. They're bold leaders of the pedestrian cause - at least the ones that survive.

Apparently Czech authorities don't share that admiration. And to be fair, they've probably got everyone's best interest in mind. Crossing the road here is dangerous - statistics suggest more so than elsewhere in the EU. Neurotic driving in the Czech Republic has been described as a social illness. A law in 2001 that gave pedestrians the right of way at crosswalks only worsened the situation. Fatalities there shot up 400 percent for two years following the law's enactment.

But that's not even the scariest part. Perhaps the most terrifying moment I've had in Prague was when I read that hit-and-runs here are just a part of natural selection.

At least that's what one person at City Hall seemed to suggest. When asked to comment about crosswalk fatalities, his reply was like something the bad guy in Rocky III, Ivan "If he dies, he dies" Drago, might have said were he in charge of pedestrian safety.

"To be honest," the official was quoted as saying in a Prague Post article, "every intelligent person stops to see if all cars have stopped before stepping on a pedestrian crosswalk. Otherwise it is likely they end up in the cemetery."

"By Apollo Creed's uppercut!" I exclaimed in horror, for two reasons. First - sensitivity, people. Let's try to show some. Second was the realization that I've moved to a city where every intersection is an IQ test for the highest stakes imaginable.

With that in mind, a nine dollar fine is a small price to pay.