Friday, April 03, 2009

Pedestrian Virtue

Although I am quite scrupulous in many facets of my life, I've always been quite liberal in my jay-walking. My mind has long since memorised the phasing of most of the central city traffic lights (in fact, even when arriving new places, I learn the phasings of intersections faster than I know the roads I walk through). I know when to cross and I don't need a little green-man to tell me. When I do cross, I'll look into the only direction(s) where vehicles could come from, hence, I'm self-assured in my safety.

A few years ago, my faith in the rectitude of this approach was shaken mildly by a single conversation with an older gentleman. He remarked how he had seen someone with a trainee guide-dog waiting at a central city intersection, and how hard it must be for the dog to learn when to cross when people randomly cross. This is true, but what I thought about was how hard it must be for parents to teach their children of the same appropriate behaviour. Do we as individuals share any social duty to provide a good standard of behaviour to model for the young?

An appeal for social duty is not unusual these days. But it is especially difficult to maintain in the pluralistic world we live in. The mores of the people in our city are many. We are comparatively individualistic; we don't tend to use social pressure for these matters (although we do for language in some respects, often referred to as "political correctness"). And with the multitude of ways people do things, the power of one person going against the "right way" is much stronger than a single one sticking to orthodoxy. (Interestingly, I'd say the opposite is also true: if everyone is not doing the "right thing", one person standing for "orthodoxy" is quite effective). Another example of this, a mother told her precocious son they couldn't sit in the seats for the elderly despite his pleading. After they sat down, another passenger took those seats. Naturally, the lack of a uniform social standard means that it comes down to adhering simply to parental authority.

There could be another appeal we could use: an appeal to protect the less streetwise. A few days ago, I was about to walk across Whitaker Place off Symonds Street. The red man was displayed but I was hungry and wanted to watch the news. Cars were streaming out from Wakefield Road, turning onto Symonds Street. I crossed knowing I'd just have to observe cars coming from Wakefield so I passed other people standing at the corner and went across. Moments after I got the other side I heard a beep. A group of girls who I had passed on the corner had followed me across when a car had come straight from Wakefield and headed quickly for Whitaker before braking mid-street to prevent hitting the girls. This is not the first time this has happened. Cruel arguments for Social Darwinism and relevant comments on personal responsibility aside, people do tend to follow others instinctively in our actions and inactions, and thus unorthodox behaviour can cause others to err; and in some circumstances, they may err to terrible consequences.

One thing chimes in my mind as I read those words: How conservative I've become, wanting to restrain individualistic behaviour for the "common good"!


Jo said...

I try not to jaywalk when theres kids around. I dont want to set a bad example when I know they're probably not aware of how much thinking goes into a decision to cross.

James said...

Yeah, me too. I also have a reasonably good feel for the phasing of the lights in town and I will usually cross the road regardless of whether the "green man" is on. But, if there is a mother and child at waiting at the crossing, I will wait too.