Tuesday, January 25, 2005


I learned to drive in rural Massachusetts, where I got my driver's license. I was taught any number of quaint rules about driving: using turn signals when changing lanes, not passing on the right, stopping for pedestrians, staying one car length behind the car in front of you for every ten miles per hour of speed. Some of these quaint things have, perhaps, evolved: the no passing on the right rule dates from before standard right side rear view mirrors (I still hate people who pass on my right, and I don't do it myself, but I'm not sure whether that's law or my own preference). I drove for two years in Massachusetts before I went to college, and sporadically after that...until we became Californians. On the other hand I've been a pedestrian--a New York Ciity pedestrian at that--most of my life. Jaywalking is an entitlement right up there with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And the pedestrians out here drive me crazy.

A few weeks ago I was chaperoning a school trip for Older Girl's high school. We took the Bart, but of course had to walk several blocks between the school and the station, and between the station and our destination. When we reached a corner with four-way stops, this one boy, a hyper, clownish kid, very sweet and funny in a hip-hop kinda way, starts out into the street, despite the fact that an SUV had already started across the intersection. So I grabbed the hood of his sweatshirt and stopped him.

"Hey! What?" he asked.

"Car coming," I said tersely, and put out my arms to stop the rest of the crowd from spilling out into the crosswalk. They all looked at me as if I were insane.

"They have to stop," the kid said. "It's the law."

"If they can."

"No, man, if they hit me, they'd go to jail."

At this point I permitted myself a sigh. "And you'd be dead. That a good swap?"

"But it's the law," he insisted.

"Sometimes the laws of physics overrule the laws of the land," I said. By now the SUV had gone by and I was trying to get the geese to start across the street. As we walked along, he kept insisting that if the driver of the SUV hit him, he'd have to go to jail. I mentioned that it wasn't automatic: that if an investigation indicated that he (Ricardo, the kid) had precipitated the accident, the driver probably wouldn't go to jail (I've read a couple of editorials since we've been out here, written by pedestrian's rights activists, decrying the how rarely such drivers are jailed).

Finally Ricardo said, "Well, I'd sue. My family'd sue."

"You'd still be dead, and it would still be a rotten swap. Wait til you take physics, kid."

He walked off, shaking his head. I did notice, however, that he looked both ways before crossing, all the rest of the trip. My work here is done. For the moment, anyway.


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