Dayton OK’s ‘road safety’ law, but critics say it criminalizes being poor and panhandling

The Dayton City Commission this week approved an ordinance that officials say seeks to reduce pedestrian strikes but that critics paint as a thinly veiled attempt to criminalize panhandling.

The ordinance prohibits pedestrians from getting within three feet of vehicles that are in operation along 51 of Dayton’s busiest and most dangerous roadways.

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The city also has outlawed loitering on the medians or traffic islands of the specified highways and streets and prohibits people from engaging in begging along these roadways unless the vehicles are parked at the curb or shoulder.

There have been more than 685 pedestrian strikes in the city in the last decade, and more than two-thirds of those crashes have happened on these specified, or arterial, roadways, said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.

The city has taken some actions that caused community debate to make the city safer, including installing automated cameras to catch motorists who speed and run red lights, Whaley said.

“When the neighborhoods and the people who live in the city are calling for us to make our streets more safe, that is what we are continuing to do,” she said.

Five citizens this week spoke out against the new legislation, claiming it is an ill-conceived attempt to prevent the poor and needy from begging and asking for help.

“I still can’t begin to wrap my mind around the fact that this commission, along with the Downtown Dayton Partnership, are teaming up to literally criminalize poverty and strip Dayton residents of the right to panhandle in the streets,” said Corey Andon, an organizer with Socialist Alternative Dayton and a Kettering resident.

Pedestrians are forbidden from coming within three feet of vehicles in operation on the roadways, and the regulations apply to the 250 feet of non-specified roads leading to intersections with arterials. The law also prohibits motorists from slowing down or swerving out of their lane to try to interact with pedestrians along the roads who are violating the new regulations.

Pedestrians can hold a sign asking for help on the arterial roads as long as they remain on the sidewalk, Whaley said. Panhandlers can beg with fewer restrictions on the city’s other streets.

The city is working with community partners to address the issues that lead people to panhandle, Whaley said.

“The ordinance strikes a careful balance between increasing public safety and the need to protect everyone’s right to freedom of speech,” she said.

Violating the ordinance is a fourth-degree misdemeanor.

RELATED: Dayton panhandlers, pedestrian crashes targeted in new law

The city has chosen to turn beggars into criminals rather than trying to enact smart, common-sense policies to help poor people, said Andon .

“You are pushing to hold folks criminally accountable for asking their community for assistance,” he said.

Andon said the city should instead fight for a higher minimum wage and tax the wealthy to help pay for more affordable housing.

Criminalizing what is not really a criminal behavior is a bad way to try to solve the social problem of panhandling, said Mary Sue Gmeiner, a Dayton resident.

The people who come to Dayton to work, relax, spend money and have a good time don’t like to see people begging on the street corner, because it reminds them of poverty, drug use, mental illness, homelessness and “all of the social ills” that have not been solved, Gmeiner said.

“Just because we don’t like someone else or their actions, doesn’t mean we have a right to make them disappear from our sight,” she said.

Dayton’s ordinance was closely modeled after a law in Madison, Wis., which was widely viewed as a way to reduce complaints about panhandling as well as improve pedestrian safety.

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