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Tuesday, October 14, 2014
Public Policy ... Society ...

I’d like to discuss a small but somewhat interesting situation involving the side-effects laws and customs that attempt to make things better for some portion of the human community. A few years ago, my home state of New Jersey passed a law requiring motorists to jam on their brakes and stop anytime a pedestrian enters a roadway intending to cross it. You can get a ticket with points and fines if you don’t immediately stop, even if the speed limit is 40 and you’d have to make a panic stop and risk getting rear-ended because some pedestrian starts into the road just ahead of you.

Well, actually this rule applies at marked crosswalks and at street intersections, marked or not; it may not hold when people take their chances with “jaywalking” on an open road stretch. The obvious intent of this law is to prevent auto-pedestrian collisions and the terrible injury they cause. The unfortunate side effect, which is becoming very apparent in my current home town of Montclair, is that pedestrians are getting careless and stepping out into the road without any regard for whatever vehicles may be approaching. This is especially apparent with the younger generation; a lot of kids don’t even look for approaching traffic anymore, they just step zombie-like onto the crosswalk. However, older folk also seem to be getting sloppy and assuming that every motorist is going to grind to a stop on a main thoroughfare as soon as they arrive at the curb.

In some towns, the chances that you are going to get ticketed for a technical violation of this law, i.e. for not stopping when there is clearly no danger to the pedestrian because the road is wide and they are still 15 or 20 feet away from where your car will pass, are relatively low (although you never know when a cranky cop will go after you just for fun). This is especially true in the low-income urban communities where the police generally have much bigger problems to attend to. But here in Montclair, the cops seem to be in tune with the spirit of the people; and interestingly enough, a lot of Montclairians appear to like the new arrangement giving pedestrians “absolute rights”. So I’ve learned to expect the car ahead of me to suddenly ground to a halt because some pedestrian up ahead has just arrived near a curb, not even in the roadway yet. And I do it myself as to avoid getting nailed by the cops. I.e., there seems to be evolving an ethic of “over-politeness”, one that the gendarmes will enforce.

Montclair has a lot of baby-boomers who graduated from college (if not grad school), and the old quasi-hippie notion of protesting and fighting for the right of the oppressed seems to still lurk deep within many of their graying heads. Being “enlightened” by NPR and such, they probably feel guilty about driving in an automobile (very likely an SUV) and thus being short-sighted, greedy environmental pirates; thus they try to make up for their sins by going overboard to support the “rights” of the historically oppressed roadway pedestrian. It makes them feel better about themselves, no doubt.

I’ve noticed it when I go out running (which I still manage to do two or three times per week, despite my own aging Boomer body). I sometimes get to a curb and stop to wait for cars to go by — just as my mother and father taught me as a kid. And someone will invariably (well, almost invariably) stop their car so that I can cross, even though there is no stop sign or traffic light. Which, to be honest, I don’t really like, especially at night. I sometimes try to wave them by — please, keep going!!! But some drivers just insist. I’ve had times when I’ve decided to “bust” an overly-nice driver by turning around and running the other way, just as they are grinding to a halt. Heh, fooled you!!

More intelligently on my part, I will sometimes stop short of a curb when I see cars approaching, so as to avoid this “over-nice” reaction. Very often, it takes me LESS time to get across a road doing this as opposed to going thru the whole opera of getting to the curb and watching as someone stops their car and waits for me to amble across, indubitably giving them a warm and fuzzy feeling inside.

Hey, I’m all for roadway safety and reducing pedestrian deaths and injury. I believe in courtesy myself. But I can’t help wonder if this new “pedestrian first” law and ethic, this “enforced courtesy”, is causing some people, especially the young, to get sloppy and assume too much; which can itself cause injury, if and when some driver who doesn’t play the game comes along. Again, when I was a kid, our parents drummed it into our young brains — WAIT UNTIL ALL THE CARS ARE PAST UNTIL YOU CROSS A ROAD !!! They taught us to be careful and alert and responsible. We were given the ability to survive in hostile environments (and having spent a lot of time in Newark, NJ over the course of my life, I’ve seen and survived a LOT of hostile street environments!).

I could be wrong, but I suspect that the new law and the “Montclair ethic” helps to relieve parents of the burden of imposing such notions within their children. Arguably, it makes parenting easier; parents can be friends with their kids, and not always some imposing and occasionally unpopular authority figure. What’s not to like about easier parenting in these stressful times? Well, the problem of raising a generation of kids who were never tutored in the fine art of common sense might qualify.

But we shall see. The local newspaper says the law is having “mixed effects”. The rough stats from the US NHTSA regarding pedestrian deaths in NJ since 2010 (when the law went into effect) aren’t all that encouraging: 139 in 2010, 142 in 2011, 156 in 2012, and 68 in the first half of 2013 (vs. 62 in the first half of 2012). This is despite the fact that a lot of pedestrian-stop tickets have been issued by police (around 10,000 in the law’s first year, about double what was issued in the previous year under the older “yield” law). And I would bet that most of them were to generally careful drivers who weren’t endangering anyone. The people who really are dangerous probably don’t get caught very often in this net.

One final thought, though — the evolving Montclair ethic regarding “pedestrian rights” appears to be a part of the “twee revolution.” From what little I understand about it, “twee” is something of a new spirit of niceness to others, or at least a social expectation of superficial niceness in thought, word and deed (and in culture too). The origin of the word, according to my quick research, is a child-like corruption of the word “sweet”. I gather that “twee” is mostly a Millennial thing, a matter of mindset amongst many young folk.

Nonetheless, it seems to be getting some traction amidst the graying Boomers whenever they drive around here in sweet Montclair. Well, not much of a surprise there. It’s getting near Halloween, and already the aging parents (or grandparents, by now) are putting out big, “spooky” Halloween exhibits on their lawns and stringing up those ugly orange and purple light sets across their porches. Yes, it’s all part of the “Peter Pan” syndrome of the Baby Boom generation (and maybe even the following “X Generation”), the desire to never get old. As such, we old folk find ways to drum up the Halloween spirit, ostensibly because our kids enjoy it, but really because we want to be kids again ourselves (while realizing that we can’t get away with putting on costumes and marching up the street ringing doorbells for candy “trick or treats” at this age).

How twee. Just like the times when I’m cruising down Grove Street on my way to work and some well-heeled financial executive arrives at the curb and gives me a look expecting me to stop short so that he can take his sweet time strolling across to his bus stop. OK already, it’s Montclair, gotta do it. Have a twee day. Buster.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:19 pm      

  1. Jim, Some random tho’ts connected to your tho’ts on pedestrians and “twee”:

    It seems to me that each city likely has its problems with laws that involve cars. Here in the entire Chicagoland area similar, but slightly different, pedestrian laws also apply to drivers. (I think—at least I know such laws are in place in the suburb-city I live in.)

    In addition there has been a “roar” of upset over a law in several counties of our renowned state over “red light cameras”. Perhaps you are acquainted with those. The substance here is that should a car go through a yellow light and have the light turn red before the car has passed over whatever invisible line is defined by whoever sets up the cameras, that car gets a ticket of $350, plus all the additional whatevers that are added. (I don’t know what the additions are and I don’t want to know; the $350 is enough to catch my attention.) In addition in some places rather than the yellow light being, for example, 3 seconds (it is said), it’s set for 2.9 or 2.8 seconds, thus causing even less time for a driver to get across into “safe” territory. Days upon days of articles in the paper and upset caused by this law that seems simply will *not* go away or be changed as it brings in too much money for whatever municipality is involved. Amazing what two tenths of a second or even one tenth of a second can do when it comes into bringing money for a municipality and costing fines for drivers, etc.

    I also found an entire suburb with “photo-enforced speed limit” along one of the main drags in the entire suburb. It was amazing how slowly the drivers were all going. Perhaps there *is* some usefulness to such a law as I tho’t as I drove the road, there are probably less accidents along that particular stretch of road. All I could see was “photo-enforced speed limit” along both sides of the road, and I slowed my speed automatically.

    Then too: I live near a high school, and I must say that there’s nothing worse than (with all due respect) “junior” driving daddy’s expensive car as it if were a junker (that is, with little or no care) down the main drive that leads to the high school. There is also some kind of secret delight – one can see it on their faces – for teenagers to amble down the roadway, blocking an entire lane of traffic with the grin that says, “you can’t move because I’m walking here and not on the sidewalk where I should be”. Ah, the joy of “people with little power exercising that little power” over others who are powerless against it.

    The pedestrian laws I’ve tended to take as a kind of “stop for a school bus loading children”: One *never* passes no matter how late one might be or how long it takes to get the children on the bus safely.

    As to the “entitlement” of the “youngsters”: I find myself comparing these kind of annoying things to the “entitlement” talked about by politicians when it comes to the boomers themselves; i.e., the boomers are convinced they are “entitled” to get social security, etc. I look at the Gen X generation and the Millennial generation and find myself thinking: What we see in these “young people” is the result of the “love not war” philosophy and “free” life pursued by the Boomers; after all, these 2 generations are the children, and maybe grandchildren of the Baby Boomers. While the boomers may have had good intentions, they are “stuck” with children and grandchildren who basically have grown up with no sense of self-discipline and no sense of the value of the other person; the “me, me, me” aspect of life overwhelms the younger generations – or so it seems to me.

    I’ve never heard of the “twee revolution” – a “who knew?” for me. But maybe some of it would not be a bad thing, even if it is superficial. It might be that “twee” could eventually lead to a sense that superficiality is not enough and some “heart” and basic value of the other might eventually re-emerge in society. One can hope.

    One last random tho’t: I disagree with you when you call yourself part of the “old folks”: My understanding is that you are *getting* old, but not yet *are* old. One has to reach 80, I understand to actually call oneself “old”. Enjoy the “getting” aspect of “old” before you hit the “being” aspect of it, I say. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 15, 2014 @ 2:59 pm

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