Some pedestrian crossings are more equal than others

Researchers of all disciplines can have a field day observing human behaviour at pedestrian crossings. This zebra-striped road sign is there to regulate road user behaviour - pedestrians and motorists - so that both groups can navigate the road safely. All pedestrian road markings are universal and convey the same message to the those in cars or those on foot. When the pedestrian is at an uncontrolled pedestrian crossing, the pedestrian enjoys the right of way and should the crossing be robot-automated or manned by a traffic controller, the right of way will be regulated by these third party mechanisms, right? Unfortunately, this is not the case. There is another factor, an outlier that somehow influences how motorists respond.Let me use the following illustrations since I criss-cross many suburbs during a regular day.

Most mornings I drive through middle class residential areas en route to work. At a pedestrian crossing at a school in such an area, I marvel at the uber politeness of the motorists. The learner will be say, two meters from the crossing, but we will all stop and wait patiently at the crossing. Once the learner has safely crossed the road, we will engage our cars and drive off without the slightest spike in blood pressure.

On other mornings I drive through working class residential areas. Here the pedestrian crossings often lose their power to hurried, sullen drivers. At one such a pedestrian crossing - a robot-controlled one on the M5, I fear for my own safety at times. Even when you see the robots are red and you can see the uniform-clad primary school learners waiting for us to obey the signal, you often need additional signals to warn your fellow motorists. I would brake long before the time and if I am still not sure that the oncoming cars have noticed, I will use hand signals or even put on my hazard lights to warn the flying saucers not to ram my behind!

At another controlled crossing - this one by a female traffic warden, I cannot help being amused by her actions at times to ensure we stop as required. She would rush to the centre of the pedestrian crossing, stand on her tippy toes and wave her STOP sign high up in the air. After all the children have crossed safely to the other side of the road, she would blow her whistle triumphantly and then return to her place on the verge till she is needed again.

Now, who would have thought that the inanimate, humble zebra- striped road marking sign would assume the social class status of the area in which it finds itself? In one area there is total compliance, in another, there are life-threatening risks. Pray, how does one explain the bi-polarity of drivers when they are confronted with a universal road sign such as a pedestrian crossing in different suburbs? How do the same motorists in their smart cars decide which pedestrians warrant their respect as they navigate the economically- divided sections of their city?


I am sure there is someone out there who would throw generous sums of funding to research this phenomenon. Imagine the research question: Why pedestrian crossings are areas of contestation. Then after years of research, the desperate scholar would come up with an educated, scientific response that would in effect arrive at the same conclusion as I have: we are messed up!



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