21 May 2008

Respect The Machine

In a survey conducted recently (using the acclaimed dalton fast-answersTM survey technique*), most respondents claimed that respect for another human being motivates their behaviour more strongly than respect for rules imposed by a machine. More simply, people are more willing to break rules imposed by an abstract authority, than to break rules that might directly hurt another human being.

So, in Paris there are two official ways to cross the street - at painted zebra crossings without lights, and at painted zebra crossings with lights. In the presence of lights, all users are obliged by the law to respect the lights. In their absence, the pedestrian has priority.

Curiously, real-world observations reveal that pedestrians, despite having the right-of-way on bare crossings, congregate at the edge of the road waiting for a gap in the traffic to cross. The drivers appear strangely willing to co-operate with the docility of the wheelless, in what amounts to a blatant violation of pedestrian rights, in which the pedestrians themselves are complicit.

Conversely, I could spend all day pushing the button at a dedicated light-protected pedestrian crossing, and snicker as drivers patiently stop for the ensuing red light and gaze upon footless black and white road stripes until the light goes green again.

What mystery underlies this paradox? What unfathomable fountain of generosity inspires these empowered pedestrians to cede their hard-won road-crossing rights to the mobile metal capsules of our oil-addicted era? And what inexplicable well-spring of patience seizes the hearts and minds of those normally stressed and terribly late and I-don't-have-time-for-pedestrians wheel-turners so that they idle precious seconds before the useless red light of an empty crossing?

Some have suggested that the truth may be more prosaic. From the perspective of the pedestrian, apparently, it is better to be alive than to be right. Fear of a gruesome death, and not noble generosity, inspires the humble pedestrian to stand and wait while those mindless nuts behind the wheel careen past. But how, in this case, are our drivers different from terrorists? How can we say we are civilised when every minute a pedestrian's right to cross the road is crushed by a ruthless driver brutally, savagely wielding the threat of mangling your corpse under his shining wheel rims? This is not the jungle!

I think it's all a big misunderstanding, really. In fact, pedestrians shouldn't worry themselves at all. On several occasions in my personal experience cars have stopped with great suddenness so that I could continue to cross the road safely and legally. Drivers, regardless of any penalties applicable to the situation in question, will never, I have learned, never risk getting blood on their bonnets, or bits of skull in their headlights, or perhaps the paintwork scratched by a protruding fragment of fractured bone. Think of the washing-up! Peeling off patches of skin and torn flesh! The headache of insurance and other administrative formalities! No, they will screech to a halt sooner than face that. And remember, to paraphrase someone wiser than I, it is only a small 95% of bad drivers that make all the rest look bad ...**

* The dalton fast-answersTM survey technique involves me imagining what people would say if I asked them, and compiling the results in my head. The approach is wildly popular for its speed in gathering information; however, some doubts have been raised concerning its accuracy (according to another survey using the same technique)

** Always excercise utmost caution in crossing the road. Never take legal, medical, financial, or road-crossing advice from a blog. Seek professional help from qualified practitioners before making any decisions.

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