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All I’m asking for is a little more respect perhaps

14 January 2009
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Yesterday I almost hit a guy with my car. And, for once, it wasn’t my fault – the guy just stepped into the street right in front of me. Thankfully, there was no one in the left lane, so I could swerve and not hit him, but it was really close. This has happened before, but what really gets me about this event is the way the guy looked at me. There was no shock or surprise in his face. No resignation that he was about to die. Not even an “oh s***” moment. Nope, his face clearly said, “How dare you drive on this road while I am walking? Don’t you know who I am?” It could only be described as self-righteous anger.

It really has struck me since I’ve been home how often this happens. How many times have I been driving down the road when a couple of teenagers step out from behind a parked car and saunter right into the middle of the street? Yes, I understand the adolescent belief in immortality – I’ve been there. But this is something beyond that. Like some kind of rite of passage. Like if you can make all the cars stop, it makes you a real man. But, as Mike commented the other day, “It does not make you tough because I choose not to kill you.”

Not that adults are all that much better. What is up with that move where you try to make it look like you’re running across the street by pumping your arms but really you’re still just walking? You’re not fooling anyone.

I hate to say it (actually, I don’t, but it makes me sound more patriotic if I say that), but we Americans could do with a little more of the Indian pedestrians’ healthy respect for motorized vehicles.

In Chennai, a definite hierarchy has developed on the roads. At the top stand the buses with the people hanging off the sides and those colorfully-painted lorries and somewhere near the bottom, just under street dogs, lay the pedestrians. This deference does not express itself with masses of walkers huddled on corners or hugging buildings, however. Rather, the pedestrians use their road savvy to cross a street. It requires weaving between cars and motorbikes while moving forward in a predictable way, and looking, always always looking. Because those auto-rickshaws can come from nowhere, and they don’t care about you. Take it from me, if you stop in the middle of the street or step out without being fully aware of what is coming in the ten lanes of traffic, you will not only be hit, but you will also be ruthlessly mocked by your Indian friends.

If you have ever driven down Devon Avenue in Chicago, you might think I’m crazy. Or lying. After all, it may seem that pedestrians on Devon are just as erratic as the teenagers I am vilifying above. After being in India, I politely disagree. When you’re driving, you might think that woman in the sari with the small child has a death wish as she steps from the market into the street and precariously close to your SUV. However, I think she knows exactly what she’s doing. As long as you keep moving in the way a person driving a large SUV who wants to get somewhere quickly is supposed to move, she’ll safely make it across the street. The method to this supposed madness is to assume that the cars will not stop for you, that the drivers do not care about you, and therefore, you need to fit yourself between the cars quickly and artfully. (I’m not saying it’s right for drivers to not care, and the drivers in India do care and will not hit you on purpose. They just expect the pedestrians to know the rules, and it just seems to work.)

Unfortunately, this approach does not work so well in the U.S. because drivers here do care and will stop for pedestrians (except for the drivers on Comm Ave near Boston University – you know who you are). I actually like this aspect of the U.S., the tendency toward NOT killing walkers. But, pedestrians, you have to do your part also. Sometimes those drivers, they can’t see you, especially when you’re stepping out from between other cars and not paying attention. And, until Detroit uses that bailout money to invent insta-brakes, flying cars, or turbo-jump, you’re going to have to give a driver time to stop that ton of metal coming at you.

I’m not saying we should embrace wholesale the insanity of Indian roads – no way, no sir. All I’m asking for, American pedestrians, is a little more respect. I plan to keep this all in mind as I work to hang up my keys and get out on my feet myself a bit more this year.

I’ll try if you will. I promise.

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