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Bold pedestrians

Now that summer is really here, more and more people can be seen walking around bravely outside their cars. I say “bravely” because this is a habit not without risk. The purpose of a car, apart from transportation, is to protect the occupants against the hazards of the outside world. The popularity of huge, tank-like SUVs makes this clear.

Once you step out of your car, the biggest of those hazards is other cars. In any encounter between a 200-pound pedestrian and a three-ton SUV, the pedestrian is likely to come off worse. Pedestrian fatalities are the highest for 40 years, and local organizations like Sidewalks for Safety have taken up the cause vigorously. Cars and pedestrians just don’t mix.

Pedestrians are slow, and slow is not good enough on today’s anarchic roads. Drivers, who are invariably in a hurry, naturally feel that they own the road and that creeping pedestrians are trespassers. Pedestrians, who are almost all drivers themselves, feel the same way as soon as they set foot on the highway. “It’s my road now,” they seem to say, and walk fearlessly across.

Walking in the city is a whole different experience. There, you are part of an irresistible mass that sweeps you along from one place to another whether you want to go there or not and keeps you waiting, locked in the crowd, more or less obediently at traffic signals when you have to cross. The solitary or freestyle pedestrian in the suburbs has no such collective security and is altogether more vulnerable.

There are many areas around here where locals and visitors like to walk — a harbor, a nature reserve, some charming streets and an attractive shopping area. So, as a driver, I encounter a lot of erratic pedestrians while, as a pedestrian, I am at the mercy of drivers who may be busy looking at the scenery, or at their phones. Modern cars, especially electric cars, are quiet. You don’t hear them coming, especially if your ears are not as sharp as they used to be.

What astonishes me is the fatalism of many pedestrians. When they step out into the traffic, which they regularly do between and not on the well-marked pedestrian crossings, they almost always walk diagonally instead of straight across, looking fixedly away from oncoming vehicles as if, by ignoring them, they will cease to exist. Parents with baby carriages tend to thrust the child out into the traffic stream ahead of them, presumably to check how dangerous it really is.

And what happened to the old commonsense rules we learned at school, that if you must walk on a highway, you should walk facing the traffic, and that it’s not a bad idea to wear something visible? Is it perhaps that we have so little experience of walking that even these basic techniques are unfamiliar? Or is it that we have come to hate all rules?

In an age of anxiety like ours, this fatalism about traffic hazards is hard to explain. Is risky pedestrian behavior truly an abandonment of one’s personal safety to fate? Or is it a kind of thrill-seeking activity, a suburban version of Russian roulette? Or is it magical thinking? Whatever it is, it’s a dangerous game. There’s no democracy on the highways, where the car is king.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.