Sunday, February 12, 2012

Massholes being massholes

Boston drivers are well known to flagrantly violate traffic laws. I've debated whether to write about this topic, since it's such a frequent occurrence that it's pretty much just another fact of life here. But if nobody writes about it, then it just gets left unsaid.

I often have qualms with the pedestrian signals around here. Many times, the beg buttons simply don't work. In this particular instance, they did work, but it didn't matter. Standing at the corner, I waited for a car to complete its right turn. I saw the pedestrian signal light up: Walk. But out of the corner of my eye, I saw another van that was not stopping. It was going to turn on red illegally, despite the sign: No Turn On Red. How typical, I thought, and so I stepped into the roadway and waited for it to pass. Were that all, it would be unremarkable. But then I continued to try and cross the street, and I realized that yet another van was trying to push through. A red work truck, with some lettering on the side: likely a contractor or similar business vehicle. Was he going to stop? My usual approach is to try and get eye contact with the driver. I step out far enough to assert my presence -- the pedestrian signal is Walk, this is my right-of-way -- but not so far that I can't get out of the way of a lunatic. In this case, he changed his mind and stopped short. Made some kind of gesture with his arm. I don't know what, and I don't care. The moment I passed, he stepped on the gas and blew through the crosswalk, heedless of the law.

Just another day in Boston. I'm sure many others can relate similar stories. Despite this, I've only been hit by a car once, a few years ago, and it was minor. I was walking along the sidewalk down Newbury Street in the Back Bay when I noticed that a car was trying to pull up into the driveway I was crossing. I saw the driver; she didn't stop. As the car rolled up to me, I put my hands onto the hood of the car and lifted myself over the top; she stopped abruptly and tossed me back onto my feet. I wasn't hurt so I let it go.

We've been rated the safest walking city which might be hard to believe after reading this post. My theory is that pedestrians don't trust drivers, and drivers don't trust pedestrians. This mutual distrust keeps everyone on their toes. You can't trust Walk signals, or traffic lights: this forces people to be aware of their surroundings. In the Sunbelt cities where fatalities are high, the roads are designed for cars only, and pedestrians are trained to rely too heavily on signals for safety: when someone violates a signal, they catch someone else off-guard. In Boston, drivers blow through red lights all the time, and pedestrians disregard signals as a rule. The result: safer conditions than the best laid plans of traffic engineers. Of course, we could still do better yet. Cars are driven too dangerously in this town. Yes, there does seem to be a counter-intuitive safety effect -- but it only works up to a point. And I think we are already beyond that point and down the slope of diminishing returns. In cities where the drivers are truly reckless and chaotic, those who venture out without a two ton coat of armor are the ones who suffer most.

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