Come for the Politics, Stay for the Pathologies

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Responsibility Free Zones


Have you driven through a parking lot lately: specifically the traffic lane rimming the perimeter? Then no doubt you’ve noticed the idiots (some with small children in tow) who wander into the lane without so much as a glance to see if there’s any oncoming traffic. Hello! You’re in a PARKING LOT there are likely to be CARS here; not all of which are going to be PARKED!

At first, I thought this was simply a variation on the urban game of chicken. In the original version, urban pedestrians in a state of perpetual purposefulness hurry across busy streets, consciously refusing to raise their heads or make eye contact with any driver in an approaching vehicle. Acknowledgment of the vehicle automatically makes the pedestrian responsible for his own safety. By willfully refusing to recognize the vehicle’s existence, he tosses responsibility to the driver, thus eliminating the need to slow his march to the other side of the street. It’s a game of chance that, oddly, usually works to the pedestrian’s advantage as drivers are always in a hurry too and certainly don’t have time to fill out accident reports. While I confess to having played this game – regularly – in my youth, I would strongly advise against it in the current milieu of multi-tasking. I know every second counts: you’re on your way to an important meeting (lunch), your assistant is calling to tell you who you’re having lunch with and why, and you’re texting your broker on the Blackberry to see if you can afford to have lunch. Unfortunately, so is the guy in the car. He might be distracted from noticing you, not noticing him.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. No, the behavior I’m referring to is not the skillful aversion of acknowledgment, but rather a complete unawareness of all other life forms. It’s played out daily in every Wal-Mart, Rite Aid and Costco parking lot in the country. While the practice might have roots in the hustle of the New York minute, in its march west it has completely evolved away from the gonzo game of calculated risk and control. Now it’s simply an act of complete and total self-absorption – a natural outgrowth of the self-esteem movement and a societal entitlement mentality. Throw in iPods and cell phones and every parking lot becomes an obstacle course for drivers.

But let’s return to the roots of this menace. New York pedestrians have always been strident. While you might notice motorists in the Midwest revving their engines at a stoplight to get a jump-start on the green light, only in New York do pedestrians, in anticipation of a light change, lunge off the curb in a swell. But when this urban survival game landed on the left coast, pedestrians were handicapped in order to even the odds. Somehow this morphed into a human rights issue and foot traffic took on the mantle of the oppressed, in need of special treatment. Here in the verdant valleys of liberalism, activists and legislators joined forces to level the playing field between weak, impotent pedestrians and powerful, gas guzzling behemoths: The mighty beast will be brought to its knees, and the gentle creatures shall pass before them. And thus, the birth of the mid-block cross walk. To be clear, these cross walks give the pedestrian the right of way, requiring all vehicular traffic to cease and desist. This is a good thing to teach your kid: If you’re too lazy to walk to the end of the block and wait for the light, don’t worry. You can cross here in the middle and traffic will come to a standstill until you are safely transported to the other side. Yeah, that’ll prepare them for the real world. (Note for the record: In olden times crossing in the middle of the block was called jay-walking, and was grounds for a ticket or at least a stern lecture from the beat cop regarding the inherent danger.)

You will now find responsibility free zones (RFZ) across the face of America, clearly marked as cross walks. You’ll find them in major cities, on college campuses, in villages, and –yes- parking lots. (In fact, the RFZ’s in parking lots have expanded beyond the marked crossings and now encompass, well, the entire parking lot.) Some RFZ’s even provide the foot participants with brightly colored flags to transport from one side of the street to the other – a low impact version of Sisyphus’ fitness program.

I’m sure the notion of pedestrian right-of-way crosswalks seemed harmless enough at their inception. But when added to the dozens of other little things that insidiously encourage people to abrogate responsibility for their own welfare you wind up with parking lots littered with Zombies and Spicoli’s.

I don’t know how to fight this debilitating trend. I will continue to be suspect of the conceit that strangers hold my life as dear as I do. Therefore, I will continue to look both ways at all crossings: marked and unmarked. I’ll wave you through if you look like you’re in the middle of a metaphysical discussion with your accountant. But, in the interest of public awareness, if you wander in front of my car without so much as a glance out of the corner of your eye, I will lay on my horn. Just to let you know who’s looking out for you.