The Pedestrian Salute

In the Bend Bulletin late last week there was a story about how Oregon lawmakers in the state’s capitol (that’d be Salem, yo) had advanced a bill that “would instruct people who want to cross a street to signal to traffic by extending an arm to wave over their heads.”

“We’re talking about improving the safety for drivers and for people on foot, so that’s a good thing,” said Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland … She also acknowledged that she has received a fair amount of ribbing over the proposal and the “salute” pedestrians would give to indicate their intent to cross.

But while we’re talking about improving safety for drivers, why don’t we (a) outlaw cellphone use; (b) engineer cities by spending money to encourage pedestrian and cyclist access?

Consider this: In 1997 & 1998, Americans took less than 6% of their trips on foot, yet pedestrians accounted for 13% of all traffic deaths.

Or this: “Walking is 36 times more dangerous than driving, because Americans lack safe places to walk (e.g. trend towards fewer sidewalks and crosswalks). In 59% of cases for which information is available, pedestrians died in places where they could not find a crosswalk.”

Or this: “On average, states spent just 55 cents per person of their federal transportation funds on pedestrian projects in the years studied, less than 1% of their total federal transportation dollars. Average spending on highways came to $72 per person.”

(The quotes come from an Austin, TX bicycle site that sources those stats, but the links don’t always work.)

Back to the pedestrian wave. While any pedestrian will tell you that waving to strangers in cars just to cross the street is annoying and stupid, it beats the present alternative, which is a Catch-22: you aren’t allowed to step in front of moving vehicles, but the current law requires pedestrians to actually be in the crosswalk to gain the protection (of right-of-way).

Nice, doncha think? Imagine wanting to cross the street while a 7,000-lb. Ford Excursion is bearing down on you like Dirty Harry. Feel lucky, pedestrain punk? It all leads to one of my top-10 most depressing epitaphs of the modern era. “He had right-of-way.”

Actually, the “pedestrian wave” isn’t all that farfetched, since when I was growing up in Ontari-ari-ario, we pedextrians were taught to “Stop, Look, and Point.” To this day I remember a righteous Toronto grandma I once saw, marching across the crosswalk with her arm at a 90-degree angle and her finger stiff like the barrel of a gun. (As an aside, the great Canadian study of righteous Ontario pedestrians has yet to be written. Good scholarly opportunity there, methinks.)

Now that I’m a motorist and pedestrian, I’ve noticed that pedestrians can be remarkably oblivious about their surroundings, often walking to the edge of the sidewalk only to stall in a far-off stupor, leaving motorists wondering: Are they going to stand still? Cross? Wet themselves? (Of course motorists are supposed to signal their turns, and we all know how often that happens.)

Plus, given the inevitable public-information signal loss that accompanies the introduction of any new traffic law, Murphy’s Law dictates that your fervid waving will just be misinterpreted anyway: “Look Gladys, another Portland kook waving at the cars.”
So, if I’m going to risk my life crossing a street, and I’m legally oblighed to wave at motorists in their speeding pedestrian death-vectors, you may forgive me if my salute looks something like this:

middle_finger.jpg

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