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Right Of Way

The genesis of this piece is self-explanatory; it was never submitted for publication.

16 November 1996

Several years ago, as I headed off for a sandwich and a few moments of peace on a typical lunch-hour, I made what I thought would be a routine right turn on red. I checked the sidewalk for pedestrians; there were none. I checked to the left for traffic; there were two cars, with a space behind them. I checked quickly again for pedestrians — still none. I focused my attention on the hole in traffic and eased up on the clutch, started rolling a bit — and caught a flash out of the corner of my eye and felt a thud.

It was every driver’s nightmare: a kid had ridden his bike off the sidewalk in front of me.

I hadn’t seen him when I checked to the right because hedges obscured the sidewalk more than about ten feet from the corner and he had been beyond that; he got in front of me because I hadn’t expected anything coming from the sidewalk to be moving as fast as he was riding — because I hadn’t expected any vehicles to be coming at me against the traffic.

The kid was OK, but I felt awful. I ran it back in my mind over and over, flogging myself for my carelessness. “If only I’d checked again for pedestrians. If only I’d been looking right, instead of left. If only…”. If only.

The police concurred in their accident report: they called it an “unsafe right turn”. They were fair about it all, also citing the kid for riding on the wrong side of the road and riding through a crosswalk.

Luckily, for all involved, I had been barely moving; the extent of the damage was a bruise and I got a lecture on safe turns, the kid got a lecture on safe riding, and we all went our ways, sadder and wiser. I gave the kid my card before I left so he could send me a bill for any damage to the bike — a foolish gesture, perhaps, considering our litigious society, but I try to be a good and fair person — and that was the last I heard of the incident.

I recount this now because I witnessed very nearly the same thing today as I was taking a walk, though on this occasion the biker was old enough to know better and the driver of the car managed to stop before he actually made contact. This time, neither the driver nor the biker showed any contrition — the driver stuck his head out the window and made some rash generalization about the biker’s intelligence and the biker, still moving forward, turned his head to the rear, ignoring what was happening in front of him as he rode into the intersection, and responded with a slur on the driver’s sexuality.

I view this incident as just another episode in a continuing saga I have witnessed since I arrived in California, a saga of self-centered people who choose to express their egos on the public thoroughfares. I refer to drivers who block the fast lanes on the highway, seemingly oblivious to the line of cars stacked behind them, and to drivers who tailgate when they could easily use another lane to go by. I refer to self-righteous bicyclists who ignore traffic lights, lanes, and rules of the road and insist every car/bicycle incident is the driver’s fault. I refer to pedestrians who assert their right of way by walking out into an intersection without even a glance to see what the traffic is doing. I refer to police officers who routinely drive 85 miles-per-hour, weaving in and out of slower traffic, so they can nail someone doing 75 with a speeding ticket, and to police and ambulance drivers who blow through red lights without checking to see that the cross-traffic heard their sirens and saw their warning signals. I refer to drivers who ignore ambulances and fire trucks coming up behind them because pulling over means giving up their place in traffic.

Some of these people are just plain wrong. Some are “in the right”. To me, into which category they fall is irrelevant, because each of these practices, legal or not, right or not, is inconsiderate and unsafe. No one is perfect, not drivers, not pedestrians, not bicyclists, not police or civilians. Everyone can make a mistake. Everyone can allow their attention to wander, can miss something they should have seen, or respond the wrong way to things they do see. A pedestrian who walks in front of a car, assuming any drivers will both see them and manage to stop in time, puts at risk not only himself but the driver of that car, other drivers, other pedestrians, and all to whom any of those people are father or mother or child or brother or sister or husband or wife or friend.

It seems to me the most important thing we can teach our children, future drivers, riders, and walkers — and future employers and employees and leaders and teachers and neighbors, and future voters and politicians — is courtesy. We must all share the roads. We must all share in society. Your duty in driving, and in life, should be to minimize the chaos and disruption in your wake as you strive toward your destination. Your guiding principle should be: always assume the other guy is going to do something careless or stupid. If that means sometimes ceding your right-of-way — what have you lost but a bit of pride?

I remember a short piece of doggerel my mother taught me when I was learning to drive. It has stood me in good stead:

Here lies the body of old John Gray
Who died defending his right-of-way.
He was right — dead right — as he rolled along,
But he’s just as dead as if he’d been wrong.

© Copyright 1996, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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