Sunday, April 24, 2005

The fine art of crossing the road

We all know how to cross the road. Look right, look left, look right again and, once sure all is clear one proceeds. I had that drilled into me at something like age 4.

Well, it's look right, left, right where I come from. After something like 45 years of doing it that way it became almost fatally easy to make the mistake when crossing roads in the US. Because, of course, in the places where they drive on the right hand side of the road it's look left, look right, look left again.

The idea, obviously, is to check for approaching traffic based on risk. If they drive on the left where you live and you step onto the road you're going to be hit by traffic from your right first. Looking to the left only matters once you get halfway across the road.

In my first week living in the states I managed to step right out in front of a speeding bus because the habit was so strongly ingrained that I paid insufficient attention to traffic on my left. The driver hit the anchors; I'm sure that's why I'm here to relate the tale.

Similarly, we learn that when the lights turn to green one should hesitate a fraction of a second to be sure someone isn't running a red. Of course I look to the right; I've been doing that for more than 30 years. Wrong in the US! Thus far I've managed to catch myself and look to the left as well (but always after I've looked to the right first).

So I find myself checking left and right much more in the US than I ever did in Australia. It's really hard to break habits that go back two thirds or more of my life. Yet intellectually I know I have to check the 'other' way so I tend to do both; the one because it's wired into my neurons by now and the other to survive.

Not a particularly original insight I might add but that's been my experience.

Did you ever notice that pedestrians in pedestrian-only areas tend to follow the 'sidedness' of driving? I first noticed this when I was at Disneyland 3 and a bit years ago. When approaching another pedestrian I naturally move to the left and expect the other pedestrian to move to my right. Didn't work at Disneyland! I moved to the left and they moved to my left! It took a while to work out that they expected me to move to my right - exactly as a driver would in the US!

You know those moving walkways in the larger airports? Usually wide enough for two people to stand side by side. There's one in Amsterdam with a prominent sign, in English and in Dutch instructing that one stands to the right if not walking, leaving the left open for those of us who walk on moving walkways. When I was there a couple of weeks ago I was secretly delighted to notice a group of Japanese tourists standing on the left side, leaving the right open for those who wanted to walk. They drive on the left in Japan!

In Singapore Airport this week I was on another moving walkway. Lots of people not walking and a little over half of them stood on the right hand side, leaving the left open for those of us who walk on moving walkways. It's not as though it's not clearly sign posted that one stands on the left leaving the right open for walkers. They also drive on the left in Singapore.

Clearly we don't read signs; we follow the habits ingrained in us by coping with traffic where we grow up.

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