This is a post I've been meaning, wanting, to write for a long time. Years. I've often shied away from it because... well... I think it might be controversial. Maybe controversial is not the right word. Maybe I think people will think I'm nuts. Oh well, here goes...
Pardon the language, but what the world really needs right now is for everybody to give a shit about the little stuff. There, I said it. Most of what I'm about to write applies to New Zealand because that's where I'm observing the behaviour, but I'd wager it applies to a lot of other countries, too.
Let's start with the road toll. Roughly one person a day dies on New Zealand roads. Our police force campaign mightily against the twin evils of drunk driving and speeding. I cannot make an argument that both of those things shouldn't be policed, even though I'm prone to a little burst of speed myself now and then. What annoys me is the slavish focus on just these two things. This is in complete ignorance of the root problem with New Zealand drivers. We're selfish, ignorant, incapable and lacking confidence.
People who fail to give way at an intersection – too selfish to wait, ignorant of other vehicles, or lacking the confidence to stop safely and get moving again? People who tailgate – too ignorant of the risk, or impatient (selfish) with the person in front? People who make sudden and dangerous lane changes – ignorant of the risk, ignorant of other vehicles around, or just selfishly taking the space they want? People who run orange or red lights – too selfish to wait their turn, or lacking the confidence to stop safely and get moving again? And so on...
In the past I've supported the idea of tougher licensing and testing of all drivers, including additional compulsory training and regular re-testing. But I think even this is not going to get to the root of the problem. Because the root of the problem isn't even in our driving. It's in who we are. To see who we are, we can ignore the car and turn to the world of the pedestrian.
I'm not even talking about pedestrians in the context of vehicular traffic. I walk along Wellington's fantastic waterfront area 5 days a week. One of the reasons is the view, another is it means less crossing of roads. But that doesn't save me from conflict. Every day I encounter the same selfishness I described above.
When you're walking in a public area in New Zealand, take a look around and you will see that, in general, people will walk on the left when there is bidirectional foot traffic. It seems reasonable to me that we follow the convention of our cars in doing this and just as reasonable that the basic rules of avoiding vehicles could be applied to pedestrians avoiding each other.
The selfishness comes out in people who insist on walking in the most direct line they can to reach their destination, even when that is in conflict with others. Having studied this behaviour for a long time, I now delight in seeing what happens when I do exactly the same thing. Reasonably often I 'win' the encounter, especially if I employ one of my 'tricks' such as looking out to sea so they know I can't see them. But from time to time it turns into a confrontation. In the worst case I deliberately collided with another person to make this point and managed to break a pair of earbuds in the process. Normally I just move on without looking back, but having lost my earbuds I turned to retrieve them. The other fellow had ended up holding them in his hand and looked at me like I was crazy. I was annoyed at the now broken earbuds so I uncharacteristically vocalised my feelings. "Well SOMEONE had to get out of the way!" I said as I grabbed them back off him and turned and left.
The key thing here is I behaved no differently to the other guy. I just walked in a straight line across the bridge. He made no move to try and avoid me and neither did I try to avoid him. Bang! If he had made the slightest move to avoid me I would have reciprocated.
This is not the only heated encounter I've had. I once had the presence of mind (and the lack of haste) to simply stop dead in front of a woman in a busy shop one day. She clearly thought I should just get out of her way and I disagreed, so I just stood there. She eventually sighed, gave me a look like I was crazy and walked around me with all the airs of someone who has been grievously wronged.
That's the selfish people. There are plenty of them around. Now to the ignorant. Queues. They're all over the place. A queue in my favourite lunch spot begins to reach the door and people come along and join the queue outside of the shop – stretching it across the footpath. Despite there being considerable frontage to the shop along which the queue could bend. My favourites are the ones who repeatedly move out of the way of other pedestrians and then continue to block the footpath. Inside, the queue continues after the cash register so that patrons can choose their fillings for the pita pockets. Sometimes the post-register queue gets a little backed up. The other day when this happened, the person in two behind me in the queue completely ignored the awkward tail and not only 'cut in' as if it wasn't there but also remained standing such that they were blocking the register. I ended up forcefully moving ahead of him before he realised he wasn't following the flow of the proper queue.
Just down the road from my office is a major bus stop. It's a stupidly placed stop (well, most in the city are, to be honest) in that it is in front of a shopping arcade. Bus patrons awaiting their ride all spread out in front of the arcade and almost always if I want to go into a shop I have to force my way through a crowd, and again on the way back out. Even if I am just trying to walk past, people will arrive in the vicinity of the bus stop and simply stop where they are in the middle of the footpath.
It's an epidemic. And this is where I think people will say I'm nuts because they don't see this sort of behaviour. And this is where I think I may even be controversial – because if you don't see the problem, it is quite likely because you are part of the problem. Maybe people aren't prepared to confront you when you are being ignorant or selfish.
When I see how people behave when walking I have no trouble understanding the behaviour of drivers, because it is the same behaviour. I guess some drivers have the added lack of confidence, but if they weren't also ignorant and selfish, maybe that confidence would come.
Now... I speak as if the whole country is like this, and it isn't. Of course I notice all the people who behave badly. But... there are so many behaving badly that I also notice those who act selflessly. The driver who motions me across when I am perfectly prepared to wait. The person who deftly steps out of my way (as I reciprocate). If I were to become fabulously rich, one of my plans is to walk around the city handing out cash to people who visibly give a shit about others,
Having thought about all this long and hard over the years, in conjunction with other selfish behaviours such as in the workplace, I have come to a startlingly simple conclusion.
People need to care about their surroundings. Their surroundings including other people. If we all just cared I think this whole problem would melt away.
I give a damn. Please, will you?
Banner image by Remco Wighman.