Following the Rules Part IV: I Don’t Care If I’m Right

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.

In case you missed them, here’s Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3

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.



  1. kestrel says

    I have to say I think that is a very sensible approach to life. My sister thinks differently: if she is driving through an intersection as the light turns green for her, and there is someone else waiting to turn but the turn light has turned red for them, and they try to turn anyway and drive through – she guns the engine and tries to cross the intersection in front of them! When I cried out about it, she told me, “But I have the right-of-way! If there is an accident, it will be THEIR fault!”. Holy cow! We could still be dead, even if it was their fault and they would ultimately pay – but we would have paid the higher price!

    I am a very boring total law-follower but I still regard these rules and laws as being common sense ways of interacting with others, not the be-all and end-all of life. The point is to try and do little to no harm to your fellow humans. Someone jay-walking is certainly not going to raise my ire; whereas someone obeying the laws and yet paying no taxes on their riches, DOES raise my ire.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      You’ve reiterated my point quite nicely there – the taxes are an excellent example. I’m not paying any taxes, but I’m just following the rules! Those loopholes exist for my benefit! Yea I don’t care about those rules, let’s change them, because the simple fact that you’re following the rules doesn’t mean you’re not benefiting from a fucked up system.

  2. jcsscj says

    I don’t know how it is in other countries, but the most important traffic rule in Netherlands is consistent with your story:

    Het is een ieder verboden zich zodanig te gedragen dat gevaar op de weg wordt veroorzaakt of kan worden veroorzaakt of dat het verkeer op de weg wordt gehinderd of kan worden gehinderd (art 5 WVW).

    Everybody is prohibited to act in such a way that danger is caused on the road or may be caused or that traffic is impeded or interfered.

    In Netherlands you don’t have the right to anything in the traffic. You don’t have the right of way, you (or the other) have the duty to let others go.

  3. jcsscj says

    In also noticed that where I live in Germany people are crossing the road on the pedestrian crossing without looking. I’m talking about crossings without lights. Also the other way around is happening, that people are already stopping before I have decided if I want to cross the road of not.

    I wonder how the Germans behave abroad. If you cross the street like that in Belgium or Poland you probably end up dead within a day. In Netherlands and Germany when you get a green arrow to turn, you are save to go. When you got an orange/yellow arrow you are allowed to go when there is no other traffic. In Belgium the green arrow has the same meaning as the orange/yellow one in Netherlands/Germany.

  4. says

    I’m a regular jaywalker, and if I ever get caught and ticketed it will be my own fault.

    That said, I’m a careful jaywalker. I don’t do it if there is any oncoming traffic. What blows me away are people who cross at a four way stop without stopping or looking, they just assume they’re not going to be hit by a car.

  5. anat says

    Israel has a terrible record of road accidents. Back in the day when I lived there one safety campaign was that ‘right of way is something you give, not take for granted’ (wording was simpler in Hebrew). Too many people assumed they could drive through because others were supposed to give them the right of way. But that assumes others are compliant. Bad assumption.

    Now I live in the Seattle suburbs and work in the city. I jaywalk often, but only in those places where I can see the traffic clearly and can cross fast enough compared to typical driving speed in the particular location. So far no trouble with the law.

    As for flags for pedestrians – we have them in my neighborhood for crosswalks near schools, to make kids more visible. There is a crosswalk near a middle school, on a road where while there is only one lane in each direction, the speed limit is 40 miles per hour (~64 km per hour). There are bright orange flags at the crosswalk, intended to be used by kids who cross the street on the way to and from the school. The idea is that any driver approaching while a kid is already crossing will notice and stop.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    jcsscj @3:

    In also noticed that where I live in Germany people are crossing the road on the pedestrian crossing without looking. I’m talking about crossings without lights.

    In Toronto, I’d be dead a couple times over if I did that, on crossings with lights. Growing up in England, we had “look right, look left, look right again” hammered into us (switch right and left in countries that drive on the right). Much better than blind adherence to rules; be aware of what’s around you!.

    Jaywalking? Do it all the time, when there’s no traffic and I might miss a bus on the other side. Just don’t be stupid about it. No bus is worth a close call with a car. People can yell at me all they like (they don’t in Canada anyway), and use me as an example for their kids not to emulate.

    One thing that can drive me nuts is people not respecting line-ups, whether waiting for a bus, your turn in a shop, whatever.

    Oh, and people stopping to chat just inside a door, at the top of an escalator, or on a bike path, thus blocking other people’s way. Grrr.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    As for working hours: As a postdoc, immersed in some really interesting work, I’d have gone nuts if I couldn’t have spent 18 hours a day nailing down the theory or doing calculations, for a couple weeks at a stretch. That’s rather different from being expected to do that on a regular basis.

  8. Lofty says

    Fortunately Australia doesn’t have jaywalking laws as such. However a pedestrian isn’t allowed to cross a road within 20 metres of a marked crossing, ie they have to use the crossing. Move further than 20m then you can cross the road at right angles so long as the road is clear. Mind you I still see loads of pedestrians around my city ignoring even these simple rules so the odd few get fined every year.

    Then there’s the cycling oddity, as of last October cyclists are allowed to ride on footpaths with caution, but have to get off and walk at pedestrian crossings unless a bike light is present too. Every so often the police pick a favourite crossing and fine a few dozen morning bike commuters who are harming no-one.

  9. says

    I don’t jaywalk, ever. It’s hard enough getting drivers to respect walk signals, red lights and crosswalks.

    The only “law” that most drivers pay any attention to is Newton’s First Law. Whoever can cause the most damage or has the largest vehicle gets the right of way. Traffic laws don’t exist in their mentalities.

    About twelve years ago I had a broken collarbone, suffered in a hit-and-run in [country redacted]. I had a green light, the driver ran a red. After the assault, I carried a titanium walking stick to protect my arm while walking, to prevent people from bumping into my arm as the bone set.

    The biggest difference I noticed was crossing the street. Just carrying something that could cause damage to cars (not swinging it, not threatening to) was enough to make drivers slow down, leave more room and obey the law. And it wasn’t just in that country, it’s been true in others (e.g. walking on the way to hiking trails), and why I still sometimes carry one. Too many drivers’ respect for others and the law only begins when there is the potential for damage to their vehicles.

    When Natasha Carla Abogado of Toronto was murdered by an off-duty cop driving an unmarked, unlit vehicle at night, speeding at 115km/h on a 60km/h road, guess who the media blamed for “jaywalking”? (Never mind the fact that he never would never have been near her had he been driving the speed limit.) The trial of Abogado’s killer continues in 2016 after a mistrial, no justice yet for the family. The media’s tone about Abogado’s murder has since changed, but victim blaming is the kneejerk reaction standard propaganda initial headline whenever pedestrians are killed. Including when cars drive up on sidewalks and run over people.

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