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Few jaywalk in Finland, despite lack of enforcement

Only around 100-150 jaywalking fines are issued to pedestrians, cyclists and moped riders in Finland annually.

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Image: Sasha Silvala / Yle

Jaywalking has become a bit more common in Finland, particularly in the capital area. But one of the first things that many foreign visitors notice on city streets is that local pedestrians usually patiently wait for the "little red man" traffic lights to turn green before crossing, regardless of whether any vehicles are in sight.

Among its other activities, the Finnish Road Safety Council has been monitoring the behaviour of pedestrians since the mid-1990s. Last year the traffic safety group surveyed zebra crossings in 11 cities, with each featuring between one to three busy intersections outfitted with pedestrian traffic lights.

The survey found that roughly 90 percent of pedestrians follow the rules of the road and cross the street only when the lights are green.

In 2017 a law change decreed that jaywalking would no longer be a crime. However the activity remains a misdemeanour and people who inappropriately cross the street risk a 20-euro fine. The penalty fee was doubled a few years ago, but according to the Police Board's Heikki Kallio, that hasn't changed people's behaviours much.

Instead, jaywalking has increased somewhat over the years, particularly in central Helsinki.

"It's common around Helsinki Railway Station, when people are in a hurry to catch a rain or on Mannerheimintie getting on a tram," Kallio said.

Even as authorities have increased the monitoring of vehicles on roads and streets, police rarely hand out tickets to errant pedestrians.

Processing costs nearly double original fine

According to police board statistics, only around 100-150 jaywalking fines have been issued to pedestrians, cyclists and moped riders annually in recent years.

In comparison, some 4,000-6,000 traffic violation fines are issued to motorists each year. The largest number of pedestrian fines issued over the past 15 years was in 2007, when 411 tickets were handed out. The smallest total, a mere 96 tickets, were issued in 2015.

One reason so few jaywalkers face penalties might have to do with the fact that processing and investigating of the infractions ends up costing more than the total of the fines.

In 2012, the Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy published a report on the costs of police investigations. The cost of a traffic infraction investigation amounted to an estimated 32 euros, or in the case of jaywalking, about 12 euros more than the original fine. The police board noted that these days investigation costs of a traffic fine can reach up to 40 euros.

Another reason jaywalking laws likely aren't universally enforced is that police are busy keeping watch over more potentially-dangerous situations, such as cars and other heavy vehicles ignoring traffic laws, according to Kallio.

"[Officers] also make efforts to tackle the problems posed by light traffic, but it's more dangerous if drivers of vehicles ignore a red light. Generally, pedestrians are only endangering themselves. The difference in the amount of fines [that drivers and pedestrians face] is partly due to this," Kallio said.

Story continues after photo.

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File photo. Image: Sasha Silvala / Yle

"Law-abiding Finns"

The Road Safety Council carried out a survey last summer asking Finnish residents about their thoughts on the severity of traffic offences.

Some 90 percent of the respondents said that vehicles running red lights were a serious offence, but only just over half of respondents said they considered jaywalking to be a serious infraction.

The council's planner, Leena Pöysti, said the survey also asked people what kinds of crimes police should be keeping an eye out for during their patrols.

"Walking against red lights came in last on the survey," Pöysti said.

Despite the lack of enforcement and low fines, pedestrians in Finland generally follow the rules anyway, according to Kallio.

"Compared to the rest of Europe, Finns are law-abiding. Foreigners wonder why pedestrians in Finland stand there waiting for the light to change when there aren't any cars coming and don't just cross the road," Kallio said.

Police in Finland do not have any plans to expand monitoring pedestrian traffic in the near future, according to the police board.

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