Friday, March 13, 2009

an open letter to all drivers

To those of you out there lucky enough to be able to afford a car and/or unlucky enough to absolutely require one in order to get around:

It is, indeed, your responsibility to check ALL lanes of traffic you are crossing before crossing them. Yes, that includes pedestrian lanes of traffic. No, it is not my responsibility as a pedestrian to peer into your tinted windows to make sure that you have bothered to do so. Even if I could see clearly into your car, I would be completely unable to tell for sure whether you'd seen me; I've had people I thought I made eye contact with nearly run me over seconds later, and I've had people I thought hadn't seen me get irritated when I didn't go ahead.

If I do start crossing the street when you haven't bothered to look in my direction at all, and you therefore drive out in front of me when I'm two feet from your car, please do not turn your car around to come back and scream at me about how I should have been looking. I was looking. I guarantee I didn't miss your car sitting there. It was just my right to go first. Would you whip your car around to scream at the driver of another car that you almost hit because you hadn't bothered to check all lanes of traffic the way you were supposed to? You don't get to cut off a person who has the right of way just because you know they run a greater risk in asserting their rights than you do in taking their rights from them (since a traffic accident could seriously injure or kill them but wouldn't be likely to hurt you).

I realize that to anyone who doesn't have to walk 1-2 miles on city streets every single day, this probably sounds like I'm overreacting. But try nearly getting killed or maimed for following traffic laws a couple of times a day. I once nearly got hit by four different cars as I crossed one two-lane street, in the crosswalk, when I had the right of way (I had waited for the couple of cars that got there before I did to go through the intersection before entering the crosswalk, and I had thought everyone waiting at the stop sign had seen me).

This kind of thing is not just an inconvenience. Having to walk all the way around behind and through the exhaust fumes of a car that has pulled out of a driveway onto the sidewalk in front of me is an inconvenience (a significant one for a person who is sensitive to exhaust fumes, and one I shouldn't have to go through a half-dozen times a day or more, but still just an inconvenience). Having cars nearly hit me, having no way to avoid that without making my commute take twice as long and even then no sure way to keep it from happening (because at least half the time it happens when I'm crossing in a crosswalk with the light in my favor) -- that's a hazard, and goddamn it, it's a fucking injustice.

This kind of shit bothers me so much because it's part of a continuum of behavior in which people with money,* people with privilege of all kinds, consider that it's the responsibility of a person without privilege to make sure she gets out of their way when they feel like speeding through an intersection without bothering to look. Even entitled grade-A assholes in beemers don't drive out in front of other vehicles whenever they feel like it, because other vehicles pose a threat to their precious Compensationmobiles. But all kinds of people routinely drive out in front of me as if I didn't even exist, and when I complain that it's my right of way, they laugh at me, or they tell me I should go out of my way to walk behind them and through their exhaust fumes, or they flip me off, or they otherwise treat me like I'm trying to take something away from them that's rightfully theirs when it's the other way around.

In a sane world, people with more power -- vehicular, financial, sexual, racial, political, whatever -- would not get to do whatever the fuck they felt like to people with less power. This is why we have traffic laws that protect pedestrians in the first place. This is why we have laws that prohibit corporations from stealing from their shareholders and their employees. It's why we have impeachment laws. It's why we have anti-rape laws. Fuck, it's why we have anti-murder laws. Walking down the street isn't supposed to be a free-for-all in which a person armed with a dangerous weapon gets to threaten me and make me give up my rights.**

It is the responsibility of any person or group of people with power to make sure that they don't hurt those with less power. Period. I would have thought that doing so was more important than grabbing those extra five seconds you don't want to lose by letting me have the goddamn right of way I'm legally entitled to, but apparently not.

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*I don't by any means assume that all people who own cars have more money than me; I am relatively economically privileged, not least because I live in a city where the bus service is good (and is cheap for me because I'm a student) and I therefore have the option of choosing not to stretch my income to the breaking point in order to buy a car. I stress money here because, even though it's a stereotype, it is absolutely true that the person, say, flipping me off for daring to cross the street after my light turned green because he wanted to run his own red light to make a turn in front of me, is more likely to be driving a BMW or a Mercedes or a Corvette or some other ridiculously expensive car. And, I might add, male. The more kinds of privilege you have, the more likely you are to feel entitled to take what you want from those who already have less than you. For example, my former (white, male, well-off) boss once told me that whenever he was driving and wanted to switch lanes, he just looked over at who was driving in the lane he wanted to be in, and if it was "a gal or an Asian," he would cut them off without a second thought. Conversely, the more underprivileged groups you belong to, the more likely you are to be taken advantage of in any given way. As a woman, I may not get cut off by drivers any more than male pedestrians do, but I suspect that I get more negative reactions when I try to assert my rights. And, of course, I run more risk in trying to assert my rights, to male drivers in particular, just as a Hispanic pedestrian would run more risk in trying to assert her/his rights to a white driver.

**Just to be 100% clear, I understand that my issues with drivers are so minor they're ridiculous compared to problems like rape, murder, misogyny, racism, etc. My point is that all of these behaviors grow from the same root cause: unacknowledged privilege.


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