A while back, I posted a 3 part series about the cultural differences around following the rules, and the cultural attitudes that I encountered in different countries.
Little did I know, when I was writing (what I considered to be quite lighthearted) posts that Part 2 would start one of the most contentious discussions ever started in the comments section of this blog, and about jaywalking, no less. Essentially, Part 2 was about my surprise at how Germans will yell at complete strangers or even take the time to call the police and report them for what I consider to be very minor infractions, such as jaywalking.
My Thor. The comments section exploded. Jaywalking was categorized as everything from a disgusting selfish scourge on our society, to a conspiratorial fabrication of the auto industry to blame pedestrians for motorist incompetence. I really never saw that coming.
Usually,I try, to the best of my abilities, to keep my own personal critiques out of my cultural differences posts. They are meant to highlight how different cultures react differently to similar circumstances, and sometimes to attempt to explain why they are so different. However, this time, I am interjecting my own opinions on jaywalking. Here goes.
I am an occasional jaywalker. When I am on the Lungotevere in Rome, and the nearest pedestrian crossing is hundreds of meters out of my way, I jaywalk. In Germany, there is a crosswalk that I always pass on my way to work, but the pedestrian crossing is red unless you push the button well before it’s supposed to turn green. If I get there a second too late it stays red for everyone, cars and people, but I know it would have been green if I had gotten there a second earlier to push the button, so I cross anyway. When it’s 1AM and I’m biking home from a ridiculously long day at work, and there is no car in sight, I don’t push the button and wait for it to turn green, I cross. These are the circumstances in which I jaywalk. I admit it freely, and I am not ashamed of this.
However, I also make sure to look both ways even when I do have the right of way. If the crossing is green, I still make sure to double check there are no cars coming before I cross. If a car does come by I wait for it to pass, and then cross.
When I was in the States, I noticed that there were white and yellow flags at the crosswalks of a certain suburban town. My aunt told me that these were for pedestrians who wanted to cross the street and make sure that the oncoming car could see them, because sometimes the drivers were distracted by looking at the lake. She told me that these flags had prevented many accidents. This was the first time that I was confronted with the concept of a pedestrian who would notice and oncoming car, and still willingly step in front of it even though it shows no sign of coming to a stop at the crosswalk. “But they have the right of way”, my aunt told me, slightly confused by my shock.
Here’s the thing. I don’t care if I’m right. I know those are the rules, and most of the time I follow them. When I’m a driver I definitely always follow them. But I don’t have an emotional attachment to being in the right. I have never told myself “I have the right of way! I will cross now, and that car is supposed to stop for me so it had better do so!” And if it doesn’t? I have no interest in having “but I was right!” be my last words as I lay dying in the middle of the street. As a pedestrian, I have a hell of a lot more to lose by stepping out in front of a moving car than the driver has.
This caution has saved me if not my life, at the very least my legs.
A few months ago, I was crossing the street here in Germany. The light was green, but it was one of those crossings on a corner, so drivers who wish to turn are supposed to stop, let you pass, and then make their turn. Not everyone, especially buses and trucks, actually do this. So, I noticed a woman wanting to turn, and I made sure she was going to stop before I stepped out in front of her car. She did, so I began to cross, but I was still looking at her when a car came barreling out of nowhere and smacked right into her, making her car launch forward and plow right through where I had been standing, if I hadn’t jumped back onto the sidewalk just in time to avoid getting hit. It was an accident, I lost a good year of my life to shock, but I wasn’t physically injured in any way.
When I told my colleagues the story the next day, the Germans told me I was so lucky, that they would never have checked to make sure the car had stopped, that when it’s green they just cross, because why would you expect anyone to hit you? A few more questions led me to discover that those who told me this had all been hit by cars, at least twice.
What I’m trying to get at is this: I don’t have an emotional attachment to the rules. I make decisions in my life based on my assessment of risk and reward. Most of the time, this assessment fits in with what the rules actually are: as well they should, since most rules have good reason for existing. Sometimes, my assessment of risk and reward does not fall in line with what the rules are. I don’t have to double check that no one is coming before crossing on the green light, but I do anyway. I shouldn’t cross a completely empty street outside the crosswalk, but I do anyway. I don’t feel emotions like guilt, or anger, when I break a rule, or when I see someone else break a rule, unless that rule fits in with my own morality anyway. Someone is smoking pot? That’s against the rules, but I think that rule exists for a bullshit reason, so I don’t care at all. Someone is hitting an innocent person? Even if they legalized assault tomorrow, I would still get pissed and try to intervene in some way, because fuck the rules, assault is wrong. The simple fact that the rule exists, or not, does nothing to change my opinion of the action. It might make me question why the rule exists, to see if there is an argument for or against the action that I had not considered, but that’s all.