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Why I Pause at Crosswalks

Last night my wife Judy and I were almost killed by motorists. We were on foot crossing Aurora St. in our hometown of Ithaca NY, a notoriously dangerous crosswalk at the east end of Ithaca’s famous Commons pedestrian mall. As we approached the crosswalk a long line of cars were making left turns in front of us. They seemed impenetrable. However, we clearly had the right-of-way. The bright white “walk” sign at the other end of the crosswalk beckoned us forward. “They’re supposed to stop for us,” Judy said as she courageously stepped into the street. We inched forward in the crosswalk. calmly waving our hands at the oncoming cars to indicate we wanted them to stop and allow us through. Instead of stopping or even slowing, the next car sped up and swerved to pass in front of Judy. As it passed she screamed and ran across the street. The car after that sped up and swerved to pass behind her. The drivers’ acceleration seemed intended to scare her a bit, to teach her a lesson for venturing into the driver’s territory. However, I was still standing in the middle of the street directly in the path of that second car. Dumbfounded, I held my hands outstretched in front of me and begged for mercy like a farmer facing a firing squad. The car screeched to a halt a few feet in front of me. My shock turned to anger and I paused for a moment to stare down the driver, a pimply-faced young man. Then I flipped him the bird and continued across. As I reached the other end of the crosswalk I heard him squeal weakly behind me, “I had the green light!”

“That’s quite an insufficient apology for almost killing me,” I thought, clenching my fists. But I let it go, so that I could enjoy my evening out with the lovely and lively Judy Swann.

The next morning I awoke early feeling uneasy with the memory of that interaction. Why does walking around my little town have to be like navigating a war zone? What’s wrong with us as a community that someone can threaten another person’s life with an automobile and yet that callous act does not merit any kind of penalty, or even an apology, it’s seen as “normal” behavior? “This is unacceptable,” I thought. “What can I do to change this situation?” Solutions came to me in three distinct waves.

My first wave of thoughts were of course revenge fantasies. “Maybe I should have scratched the paint of his car with my keys as he passed,” I imagined. “Or maybe I should carry a hammer so that I can smash the windshields of cars that threaten me.” These responses seemed like they would be very emotionally satisfying for a brief moment, but I realized that ultimately I would regret them in the long term, and furthermore nothing would change, and the motorists would feel even more justified in their persecution of pedestrians. As a Quaker I am trained to recognize that violence begets violence, and to seek alternatives. My brain moved on to a more rational analysis.

I wondered if technology could solve the problem. “Maybe I could carry a long pole with a flag on the end, to poke into the intersection ahead of me,” I thought. “Or maybe I could send a robot (perhaps disguised as a baby carriage) into the crosswalk ahead of me to stop traffic.”

It then occurred to me that while making a baby carriage robot would be fun, the city has already tried to solve this problem with technology by installing the traffic signal itself. But for some reason they have failed miserably: “What kind of idiotic traffic engineering makes it so that the left-turning cars and the pedestrians are both trying to cross the same patch of pavement at the same time?” A traffic engineer might argue that left-turning motorists should know that when the light in front of them turns green, it is also green for the pedestrians, and they have to yield to the pedestrians. But half the motorists, like my pimply-faced friend, don’t understand this. They think green means go, and they aim to punish anyone who gets in their way. Crossing that street remains a gamble. If only half the motorists understand and obey the rules that is not good odds if one of the outcomes for me is severe injury or death. It should not have to be this way.

How to solve this problem? Perhaps install wires in the driver’s seat of every car so that if a motorist behaves irresponsibly an electric shock is applied. Over time, like Pavlov's dog, drivers will learn correct behavior. But who gets to decide what is correct behavior? This approach seemed like a moral dead-end. Then another thought occurs to me, much simpler to implement: “Of course! Couldn’t we just have two separate signals, one signal for pedestrians to cross and then shortly after that another signal for turning cars?” Unfortunately, traffic engineers are trained to reject such an obvious solution. I remembered reading a book called Fighting Traffic about the history of our automobile-centric transportation system. That author describes how the traffic signal was not invented with anyone’s safety in mind—that is a common misconception—the traffic signal is really intended as a tool to increase traffic flow by preventing gridlock. It’s clear to anyone paying attention that for traffic engineers safety is a secondary concern. Car throughput is their primary concern. Two separate signals would decrease car throughput, so it’s not something they would consider.

And I remembered that at this particular intersection on Aurora St. when I am walking or biking I am in the habit of crossing against the red light, because it is actually safer than crossing when the light turns green and left-turning cars are following each other across the crosswalk in a mad frenzy to get through the intersection. It is a sad state of affairs when disobeying the rules is actually safer than obeying them. It kind of makes you distrust the rules and the people who make them.

It’s clear that on a global scale traffic safety as we know it is not working. The World Health Organization of the United Nations counts 1.35 million traffic-related deaths every year. 23% of these deaths are pedestrians killed by motorists—that’s 310,000 people, three times the population of Ithaca dead and gone every year! This second statistic seems particularly tragic to me, because pedestrians are inherently innocent. What I mean is, it seems to me, if you get into a car to go somewhere, you are accepting the possibility that you might be injured or die. As they say, if you live by the sword you should be willing to die by the sword. Or car. In our society it’s generally okay to risk your own life within limits (hence smoking, sky diving and eating at McDonalds are all considered okay). But it’s not okay to risk other people’s lives (hence we are required to wear face masks during covid). But with driving we have somehow reversed our morality: it’s not okay to threaten others with a cough but it is okay to threaten them if you do it with a car.

“Oh pooh Laurence,” you may be thinking. “Driving is not dangerous. I do it all the time!” Driving may seem like a “normal” activity to you. It may seem to you that you are not moving dangerously fast because of an optical illusion: the “room” of your car is moving with you. But you are going much faster than your body was designed to move. It's physically equivalent to jumping out a second story window. If you travel faster than 30 mph you are giving your body enough momentum to break bones. If it’s your own bones that you break, well, it’s kind of your own damn fault; you accepted that risk when you turned the key. But we pedestrians did not accept that risk. We are innocent. And so every pedestrian death is murder. Every pedestrian killed is an unsettled soul, haunting the crosswalks of our city.

And here’s another statistic from the WHO regarding the death of innocents: traffic violence is now the leading cause of death among children. And lest you think this is something that only happens in faraway countries, consider the recent death of 14-year-old Sophia, an Ithacan who was struck and killed by a motorist last year just walking down a quiet street with friends. She was held in remembrance at the recent Vigil for World Day of Remembrance of the victims of road traffic violence organized by Bike Walk Tompkins. Is this the kind of world we want, where parents keep their kids inside because in front of every house, and surrounding every playground, is a killing zone known as “the road”? I feel disgust toward the politicians and city planners who perpetuate this grisly status quo. And I feel disgust toward the automobile industry that focuses on only one side of safety, the safety of an automobile’s occupants. Hey people! There are two sides to safety! The other side of safety is our safety, the safety of us your neighbors trying to get where we’re going on the outside of your car. We don’t appreciate your stink and your noise and we surely don’t appreciate being threatened by you on a daily basis!

I got kind of worked up. I imagined myself writing angry letters to local officials and newspapers about how dangerous the Aurora St. intersection is. And I imagined that years of concerted effort as an anti-automobile activist might, if I’m lucky, result in the city installing a sign on Aurora St. that says something like “Please don’t run over pedestrians” or some such ridiculously ineffectual solution. As usual, the activists and the politicians might feel like they’ve done something useful but really nothing will have changed. And imagining all this I felt a bit helpless.

But then my mind at last settled into a spiritual perspective, and with that relaxation came a solution. I remembered that true change begins from within. I remembered that I myself sometimes drive. And I remembered that I’m guilty of the very behavior that I abhor in others: sometimes I get so caught up in trying to get through an intersection before the light changes that I myself sometimes threaten pedestrians. So how can I change my own behavior when I'm the driver? And the answer came to me: by pausing at crosswalks. By pausing not just for the safety of myself and others but also in remembrance of the victims of traffic violence. And to ask their forgiveness.

I remember once a school bus driver explained to me why school bus drivers are required to pause at railroad tracks, and to open the doors of the bus. They said it was part of their training. They said that it was ostensibly to listen for oncoming trains, but also it’s really a spiritual practice, a pause to remember the violent death of two dozen school-age children in 1938:

A single bus crash 83 years ago was the inspiration for laws in all 50 states that require bus drivers to not only come to a full stop at all railroad crossings but they’re required to open their front door and driver side window to LISTEN in addition to look for oncoming trains.

It was the height of a winter blizzard in Sandy, Utah on December 1st in 1938 when school bus driver Slim Silcox and 39 students being driven to Jordan High School paused before crossing the tracks, but Silcox failed to see or hear an 82-car freight train until it was too late.

The train t-boned the center of the bus at full speed.

Even though the train engineer hit the brakes before colliding with the bus, the caboose made it all the way to the intersection before the train finally came to a stop, dragging the bus more than a half-mile before finally coming to a full stop.

First responders and witnesses report the horrific sight of children’s bodies, children’s body parts, books, school lunches and jackets scattered along the side of the tracks.

I thought about this requirement of school bus drivers, and how it is really a spiritual practice disguised as a safety training. I thought about how it must make them more mindful, and how it must remind them that driving is a big responsibility with tragic consequences if not taken seriously. !t occurred to me that everyone who drives can adopt a similar practice. Everyone who drives owes an apology to the people who have been killed or injured or even threatened. And their apology has the most power to heal at the very spots where these offenses took place: the crosswalks of our city. And I also remembered a spiritual practice Judy had taught me, which was developed by a therapist working at a prison in Hawaii:

“Ho’oponopono is an ancient Hawaiian practice that combines love, forgiveness, repentance, and gratitude in four powerful phrases when said reflecting to yourself. Yep, that’s it. Four simple phrases that heal the soul. They are:

  1. I’m sorry.

  2. Please forgive me.

  3. I Thank you.

  4. I love you.

Turns out that loving yourself is the greatest way to improve yourself, and as you improve yourself, you improve your world. Whenever you want to improve anything in your life, there’s only one place to look: inside you. And when you look, do it with love.”

— Dr. Ihaleakala Hew Len

So today as I drove around the Ithaca Bikeshare van for my work I implemented this idea: at every crosswalk I came to I said to myself “I’m sorry,“ “please forgive me”,”thank you”, and “I love you”. Did it help? I think it did! Throughout the day I maintained the correct attitude for driving safely. No one got hurt. No one even felt threatened. It works! But don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself. Together we can heal traffic violence in our town. We’ll know we’ve succeeded when children again feel comfortable playing in the streets, and their laughter is heard throughout the realm.


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