Crossing on zebra with a yellow flag

Some people in England call them “zebras,” we here in the colonies just call them “crosswalks.”

Some people in England call them “zebras,” we here in the colonies just call them “crosswalks.”

Although if we said to a little kindergarten kid: “Be careful. Make sure you cross the street on a zebra,” they would probably be quite excited. I know I would. But hey, I sort of believe in unicorns so that would explain that.

Thing is, I heard a little news item on my car radio whilst stopped at a crosswalk the other day. It mentioned that there is quite a problem with drivers ignoring crosswalks and, more to the point, quite a problem with people trying to cross the street on them and remaining alive. Apparently there is a particular area in West Vancouver near a school where there have been more than a few near tragedies. This is solely due to a particular problem with inattentive drivers in that they are morons.

So the community and City Fathers and City Mothers came up with a plan. They have placed a bucket at each end of the particularly dangerous crosswalks. And in those buckets are sticks, and attached to those sticks are yellow flags. So when a child or a normal person wishes to cross at the crosswalk, they pull one of the flags from the bucket and wave it until the moron drivers actually stop and it is theoretically safe to cross. Then, and only then, the petrified pedestrian flag person crosses and deposits the flag in the other bucket across the street.

“What a great idea!” I said right out loud to the radio reporter since there was just me in the car at the time. But here’s the thing: the reporter went on to report that there has actually been a swell of negative criticism (is there any other kind?) regarding the yellow flag idea. “Why?” I said right out loud again. “It’s a great idea!”

So it seems some people think that waving a yellow flag at a car is a terrible idea because it takes the responsibility for safety away from the moron drivers and puts it on the supposedly less moronic pedestrian. It is, after all, totally illegal to hit a pedestrian with your car. People always have the right of way, whether walking, biking, in a wheelchair or blind-drunk crawling for that matter.

Still I’m surprised how vitriolic Tweets got from vitriolic Twitter people in response to the yellow flag pilot project. Here’s a sample:

“This is victim blaming!”

“I thought this was a joke. Drivers responsibility to get off phone, stop applying makeup and look around.”

“It’s insane. Once again blaming the pedestrian for not being seen. Crazy, just crazy.”

“If we ever end up in West Van we promise to take all flags, cross at will, burn all flags.”

Yikes. Burn all the flags? Some people really like their crosswalks to be flag-free, apparently.

Maybe the West Vancouver Yellow Flag folks could take solace in the fact that they aren’t the only ones experimenting with crosswalks. According to the interweb, in Lisbon, Portugal they had the opposite problem. Jaywalking. You know, gambling with the person-versus-car scenario. And we all know who always loses when the inevitable finally happens.

So what did they do? They installed a dancing crosswalk signal. What?

Here’s how it works: instead of a stationary red silhouette of a person appearing on the Do Not Walk electronic sign, the figure dances. This “encourages pedestrians to watch the little guy strut his stuff instead of trying to dart across the street against traffic.” The really fun part about this is that the little figure on the Do Not Walk sign is activated by anyone who wants to bust a few moves. There is a little booth nearby with motion-capture cameras and anyone who feels like it can step in the booth and cut loose, and those movements will appear as a little red dancing figure on the sign.

How cool is that? It’s 81 per cent cool. In that statistics now show that 81 per cent of pedestrians don’t jaywalk at that intersection in Portugal.

But dancing crosswalk signals are a tad more expensive than yellow flag buckets. So there’s always the crosswalk placebo effect. In New York City (where else?) there are about 3,500 crosswalk buttons. Of these over 90 per cent do not work. At all. In fact they haven’t worked since 1980, when traffic lights became automated and the buttons were actually deactivated. But people still press them anyway. Wouldn’t you?

Apparently it would cost the city a cool $1 million to remove the dead crosswalk buttons. Besides, they say, the “placebo” effect is a positive one for people who like to think they have some miniscule level of control in their lives. And let’s face it; we humans just love to push buttons. Any kind of buttons. I know I do. It’s strangely satisfying. Like riding a zebra. Or a unicorn.

But of course the real solution is to have full-time crossing guards at every crosswalk in the world. I know because I once was one. It was Grade 7. Central School. The white belt over one shoulder; the miniature stop sign in your hand. A whistle around your neck. Most crossing guards figured they could change the world and make it safer.

Me? I just joined because Shawna Frizzell was a crossing guard. Best job I ever had.

Harley Hay is a local freelance writer, award-winning author, filmmaker and musician. His column appears on Saturdays in the Advocate. His books can be found at Chapters, Coles and Sunworks in Red Deer.