You’ve seen him before: the poor soul who doesn’t cross the street on a Don’t Walk signal, even when there isn’t a car in sight. Even while other pedestrians are streaming past him, crossing the street and continuing along their merry way. Bottom line: you should try to become that guy.
Think of it as a late New Years resolution. Most resolutions are lofty and hard to carry out. Chances are good that if you made a resolution for 2017, you have already broken it. But waiting for the Walk signal is a resolution that you can keep for life. It would be an easy win, and one with a small but increasing likelihood of saving your life – or someone else’s.
First, a few facts. Pedestrian fatalities and injuries in the U.S. are on the rise. A pedestrian was injured from a traffic accident every eight minutes, on average, in the United States in 2014. One died every two hours. The vast majority of these deaths, more than 70 percent, take place in urban areas. Over half of those who die in traffic accidents in New York City aren’t in a car – they are on foot.
Few among us would advocate jaywalking. Waiting for the signal to cross is great in principle, but in reality we have compelling reasons to disobey that lighted hand. The most obvious is that we are in a hurry. There are a million tasks waiting for us at work, with a million more waiting for us when we get back home.
Unfortunately, our long to-do lists are precisely the problem. In modern life, distraction is the norm – even without handheld distractions. The human mind is simply prone to wander. A study suggests that we may spend as much as half of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we are actually doing. In other words, those million tasks aren’t just waiting for us at work; they travel with us (and distract us) wherever we go. If you’re like me, you get from place to place on autopilot. That’s fine if you’re a plane, but less than ideal if you’re a pedestrian.
Distraction isn’t our only enemy. Our social nature is also to blame. We are descended from a long line of creatures who follow each other automatically. Think of our living relatives in the animal world: herds of wildebeest, swarms of ants, schools of fish, or flying bird formations. Like them, we use cues from the creatures around us to determine how and where we move. In the case of crossing a street, when one pedestrian begins to cross the street, others tend to follow – often without noticing the traffic circumstances until they are standing in the street.
I have been the trailing wildebeest, blindly following the herd, more than once in my life. Nothing rivals the sunny day when a friend and I were riding home from high school on our bicycles and stopped behind a classmate on the sidewalk. We chatted while waiting for the Walk signal and, when our classmate rode out into the intersection, we instinctively followed him. Perhaps on some level we assumed that he was crossing with the light, but he was not someone we would consciously have trusted with our lunches, much less our lives. All the same, my friend and I looked up to find a car barreling towards us. When the car screeched to a stop just shy of my left caIf, I stared through the windshield, feeling as if I was inside the car with the driver and her two young children.
Talk (but Don’t Walk) to the Hand. Photo by DMangus CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Beyond the social pull of fellow travelers, we are also at the mercy of our own internal states. Extreme moods or physical discomfort can distract us from our surroundings, but there is also the elephant in the proverbial intersection: alcohol. Although there have been campaigns against driving under the influence, we don’t talk about walking under the influence. Yet in an estimated 34% of U.S. pedestrian deaths in 2014, the pedestrian had a blood alcohol concentration at or above the legal limit for driving under the influence. If you have a few drinks and make the very good decision to walk rather than to drive home, you still face risks from your inattention and sluggish reaction times.
So how do we keep from following others or meandering into the street when we are on autopilot, distracted, or impaired? Being aware of one’s surroundings is always best, but you also need a backup plan. You can make one by building a new habit. Wait at all signaled intersections until you see the Walk signal – even if there isn’t a car to be found. Wait that extra minute for the signal every time, just as you would if you were a car waiting at a red light. If waiting for the signal becomes a habit, then you will default to it, even when you are on autopilot.
Now consider a few benefits of this habit. First, if you cross for a Walk signal, then you are crossing at the intersection. This alone greatly reduces your risk of being struck by a car. In 2014, 71% of US pedestrian deaths occurred outside of an intersection. And as a moral bonus, creating this habit for yourself can also protect others. If you don’t cross against the light, your distracted fellow walkers won’t follow you out into traffic. That particularly benefits children and the elderly, who may require more time to cross the street.
Over the past two years, I have been cultivating this habit. I have been that sucker who waits for the Walk signal, even when there isn’t a car to be seen. I had the idea of writing this post on the walk to work one day. I arrived at my office with an outline of it in my head – but no recollection of actually treading the sidewalks and crossing the streets along the way.
Still, I know one thing: I obeyed that lighted hand.