Wanted: An Outbreak of Civility

Back in March I almost became a pedestrian statistic when I chose to tangle with an impatient motorist and learned the hard way you can’t stop a car with your bare hands. The encounter catapulted me into the street on the back of my head, landed me in the E.R., and threw my autonomic nervous system seriously out-of-whack.

Kaiser therapist Sue Davis offered me tools to get some balance back. But after a few sessions, she said, “I want you to think about this: your sense of what’s right and wrong led you to put your life in danger. Maybe you could write an essay about that?”

I started pondering my own notions of right and wrong, and all the ideas that are present in our culture. I grew up in a family of people who know what’s right and are not afraid to set you straight. I hadn’t really thought before about how that was related to my work of doing right and trying to make the world a better place for pedestrians.

In this matter of the crash it was clear that I was wrong, at least by some standards. I got launched because I held onto a car, trying to stop it, while the driver accelerated. Didn’t I understand physics? The police officer who responded lectured me on my folly. The driver’s insurance adjuster determined that I was more at fault than her client. The attorney I consulted said that the moment I touched the car I crossed a line and cut the legs out from under any case I might have had. One of the witnesses called me, weeks after the incident, to let me know he thought I was at fault.

On the other hand, there were those to whom it was perfectly clear that the driver was wrong. She had honked at me to get out of her way when I was crossing with the walk light, shouted at me when I tried to talk to her, and floored the accelerator when I tried to keep her from going on in front of me. These listeners were indignant on my behalf and shocked that the driver hadn’t been charged. Friend after friend offered sympathy and support, and many related their own frightening interactions with rude drivers.

My husband, Scott, didn’t see that right and wrong came into it. “You weren’t wrong,” he said. “You just made a tactical mistake. You never should have moved from in front of the car. You had the physical advantage, and you gave it up.”

As I thought about the many faces of right and wrong I asked my friends and family to explore the subject with me. Is there a continuum of righteousness? I imagined that at one end might be the struggle for social justice. Isn’t it right to work to change what is wrong, to undo injustices and to rectify inequalities? Was Rosa Parks right or wrong when she refused to move to the back of the bus? Did right or wrong enter into it? What about the lone man who stood up to the tanks in Tiananmen Square? What would Gandhi have done in my crosswalk?

And if there is a spectrum, what’s at the other end? Shushing someone at the symphony, or sweetly informing a litterbug, “Pardon me, you dropped something…”? Can we possibly hope to raise the level of civility by correcting uncivil behavior? No one responds well to scolding.

I learned a lot about the convictions of my friends. One dear friend is so passionate about what he thinks is right and wrong in bicycling that he rides after and catches up to miscreants who run red lights on their bikes so he can lecture them on how they make all bicyclists look bad. But another, hearing about that, asked if he would have told Rosa Parks she was making Blacks look bad? Yet another recounted how, while riding MAX, she snatched the cigarette from the fingers of a young person who had the temerity to light up, quite illegally – and crushed it under her heel. “What possessed me,” she wondered afterward. “I could have been shot.”

I thought about the behavior of a motorist who passed Scott and me as we biked home together one evening, just two blocks from our house. As he passed, gunning his engine, he rolled down the passenger-side window to shout, “You’re supposed to ride single-file, a**holes.” Scott thought the driver – who turns out to live just a couple blocks away from us – was just a jerk, with a reaction totally out of proportion to any delay he suffered behind us on a quiet neighborhood street. I pondered whether the driver’s reaction really was a deep personal affront that we were not following the rules of the road.

Another friend shared curiously parallel story, only she was the driver who confronted the cyclists. She thought they were rude and unfair to refuse to move from riding abreast to riding single file so she could safely pass them on a winding country road. After she did pass them, and reached her destination, she walked back out to the road and stopped the two bikers as they came by, so she could bring them to a sense of their iniquity. As I listened to her tell the story, I couldn’t help but reflect privately that if she had enough time to stop and confront them, she could have equally well have used the same time to drive slowly behind them to her destination.

I began to think about the duality of these tales. It’s a truism that there are two sides to every story, and it seems each side is hardened in the belief of being in the right by the nature of these traffic-related encounters.

I came back to thinking about the driver who honked at me. Whatever value judgment could be made about my subsequent actions, surely she was wrong to honk at me? My grown son Colin had a wonderful insight. “It’s like this, Mom,” he said. “She was in a hurry, you got in front of her, she said ‘Oh, balls,’ and she honked. To you, that was as out of line as someone making fake farting noises in church. But to her it wasn’t like being in church. It was like being a second grader at an assembly. Everyone makes fake farting noises.”

David Engwicht, the Australian social inventor who brought traffic calming to prominence and then disowned it, has a gem of new book out, Mental Speed Bumps: The smarter way to tame traffic. In it, he postulates that we can experience “an outbreak of civility” on our neighborhood streets if we just bring out the storyteller in motorists. Offer them intrigue, uncertainty and humor, and their storyteller persona will take over to try to fit a story to what they see. They will unconsciously slow down, and everyone will have a better time.

I imagine my encounter with the young motorist unfolding differently. Instead of righteousness, I respond with humor. I see myself dancing in the crosswalk, one hand circling up, breaking into song like Diana Ross: “STOP, for pe-DES-tr-ians! Before you break my head!” My heart is lighter, just visualizing this. Yes, it’s life-and-death out there in the streets. But giving in to rage is not the answer. Maybe I’ll try intrigue, next time.

10 responses to “Wanted: An Outbreak of Civility”

  1. Thanks, Ellen, so much for your thoughts. Man, I go through this every day. I once yelled at a guy who was speeding down 23rd Ave., and he circled around the block, got out of his car and really got in my face. Most unpleasant…he clearly had some “issues,” but was unarmed; I survived…my wife was scared shitless…and I still perform this civic duty, but usually with an eye to “are they armed and dangerous.”

    But mostly I survive by singing as I ride my bike…
    “Better beware of the “Auto-butts” as you go bopping along…on your bicycle;”
    Better beware of the “Auto-butts, as you go bopping along,
    Look to the left, look to the right;
    Be on your toes, but don’t be uptight,
    Better beware of the “Auto-butts” as you go bopping along…”

    and so on. And then I’ll break into a meaner tune if need be called “Fat People in Cars”

    We need to sing and laugh as we reclaim the streets for all.

    Lenny Anderson, NE Portland

  2. What a fantastic start on a conversation of right and wrong. I appreciate what (was it Warren Berger?) a justice said in his supreme court, “Your rights end where my chin begins.”

    With that rational, and remembering that cars weigh much more than most any person, maybe more responsibility should be assigned when driving around all that weight. Following further, that driver’s rights ended when approaching any pedestrian.

    To be clear, although Portland has its own fair share of jerky drivers, it’s important to remember that this town is still more courteous than many other cities (big and small) compared to the rest of our nation. It seems with the huge influx of population comes also an influx of rudeness on the roads. So, what type of infrastructure could we utilize (besides this as a conversation form) to help encourage people to slow down and tame the anger and rage? How about simply walking, riding bicycles, or using public transit as alternatives.

    Thankfully, there are many resources in this city. So, now I will put in a plug for the BTA’s Bike Commute Challenge (http://www.bikecommutechallenge.com/) if you haven’t already heard of it. Let’s try and encourage our work colleagues to participate and unplug for a chunk of our days as we get to and from work.

    Thanks, Ellen, for bringing to light such a crucial discussion.

  3. The bike messengers collection of car parts ripped from offending vehicles, kicking the offenders’ cars, yelling at them … I think all of these things may make us feel better but I am not sure it is really going to change the behavior of the people involved and prevent someone else from experiencing the same thing again.

    There is no doubt a problem with people who are thoughtless drivers. They have become too comfortable in their climate controlled cars and forget that they are a danger to everyone around them just by the fact that they are driving several tons of steel. But many of the biggest problems are caused by different expectations.

    Can bikes pass a line of stopped traffic on the right? If they do who is responsible for making sure a right turning car doesn’t collide with them? If a car is turning right should they pull into the bike lane or turn across it? Should bicyclists be in the lane if they are moving much slower than traffic? Can they ride two or three or four abreast. Should they pull over and let traffic pass them, the same way slow moving vehicles do? Does a bike have the right-of-way in a cross walk just like pedestrians? Can they expect traffic to stop? Can bicylists ride on the sidewalk. Should they always ride in t he direction of traffic. Can they ride against traffic in a bike lane? Can a bike run a red light when it is safe to do so?

    I use all of those because I have seen behavior that different people answer those questions differently. And I think the laws and people’s generally accepted behavior are not always the same either. Sometimes that is because people don’t know the law, sometimes its because it is inconvenient sometimes because the law conflicts with “common sense”. Sometimes one person’s “common sense” of what is safe is just plain wrong (riding against traffic for instance.)

    I would think someone who jumped out of their car and started screaming at me for safely passing on the right was a jerk. Even though currently the law would be on their side. Likewise bikes not coming to a full stop at a stop sign.

    It seems to me that we will catch more flies with honey and we ought to figure out how to have a larger public dialague so that bicyclists, pedestrians and drivers all have the same expectations.

    And I am not being holier than though, I have been known to scream expletives at drivers who make right turns in front of me forcing me to slam on my brakes. I just don’t think it is producive of a very positive result. Its far more likely the person yelled at will wonder whether this angry person has a gun.

  4. A SOB in a SUV honked at me this AM…I responded with the F-word. Hey cyclists can be in a testy mood too! I continued on my way muttering “$5 gas, please Lord, $5 gas!”
    Then on the 85 bus to Swan Island a colleague from Freightliner who rides C-Tran ($3) to the Rose Quarter, then TriMet ($1.40) told me he planned to ride his bike home via the Interstate Bridge…what a great ride it was, etc.”
    So…”Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow, all it takes is a rake and a hoe and piece of solid ground.”


  5. “Passing on the right on a bicycle will shortly be legal. It was passed by the recently adjourned legislature.”

    I think the legislation also makes the bicyclist responsible for ensuring that they are passing safely. Which means cars turning right have the right-of-way and we need to look out for them. Which is the opposite of what I expect in a bike lane.

  6. I will compose this thought while I am temorarily sidelined until I get a new front tire for my Takara ten-speed. Maybe you folks should read what other Portlanders are saying, just for balance. Since when are bicyclists above the law? To wit:

    Rashas Weber (WW, letters, Aug.17) writes: “Bicyclists can’t have it both ways. As long as their attitude is one of blatant disregard, they are not going to gain the respect of motorists.”

    I have seen similar letters in our other area papers, from bicyclists. I think that, in general, Portland motorists are exceptionally courteous, as bicyclists ride thru stop signs, without lights, on sidewalks and through red lights. All of which, I may also do, but only when there is no conflict with any automobile that is observing traffic law.

  7. First let me say that I am very glad that Ellen seemed OK the last time I saw her on the #15. (Ellen, you didn’t mention any of this to me–you just talked about the NW 3rd/4th Ave. project and your contigency fund!) I am relieved that she is OK–Portland could have lost an amazing mother, jazz singer, planner, friend, pedestrian advocate and all around great lady. Ellen, if you’re reading this, I vote for preserving your personal safety over teaching the selfish driver a lesson for next time.

    My getting-hit-by-a-car story sounds downright luxurious compared to Ellen’s.

    In a distant land, many years ago, before I was in better touch with my own fragility and mortality, I was crossing a 4-lane, major downtown street (also a provincial highway) against the light after dark. Wearing dark clothes, I was waiting on the yellow line for traffic to pass in the two lanes in front of me. The driver of the Jeep saw me at the last minute, slammed on his brakes, and was skidding when he hit me. I went flying through the air and when I landed I was in shock.

    The short term damage: I lost the ability to speak English for the next 8 or so hours, and I was mobility impaired for 3 months during an East Coast winter on a campus on the side of a mountain and had to have crampons installed on my crutches. The long term damage: a cool, bionic knee with tons of hardware that hurts and creaks and groans and threatens to come apart everytime we play rugby together, especially when a big guy lands on my leg in a ruck or I get tackled the wrong way.

    As far as Jeep drivers who hit pedestrians go, I had an extremely thoughtful one. He:
    – Jumped out of the Jeep and called 911 on his cell phone
    – Held my hand until the ambulance came
    – Visited me in the hospital
    – Apologized profusely and repeatedly for hitting me, even though it was pretty much entirely my fault
    – Insisted that his insurance company pay part of my hospital bill when they tried to get out of paying for it

    While I think he was a very nice man with good reflexes, I also think that the culture of his country is much, much different from our culture. In Canada, people (for the most part) don’t cross against the light. Drivers are (for the most part) very courteous to pedestrians and cyclists, especially in congested downtown environments. And drivers recognize that they are also pedestrians and cyclists, and (for the most part) do a great job of obeying the Golden Rule.

    Maybe we need an outbreak of Canadianness here.

  8. Ross, the bicyclist has the right of way in the bike lane (ORS 811.050), so the drivers who cut off cyclists are already acting illegally, and will be in the future.

    The new law (read it) allows cyclists to legally pass on the right in a shared lane of traffic when a bicyclist “may safely make the passage under the existing conditions,” including in shoulders and on wide lanes. What that will end up meaning exactly probably depends on some court cases.

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