OPINION: NEVER ASSUME RIGHT OF WAY

OPINION: NEVER ASSUME RIGHT OF WAY

by Christopher M. Halleron

You see that headline, and you’ve already mentally crafted your counterpoint. I know this, because I’ve had this mind-numbing conversation far too often.

But here it is again, in plain English—NEVER ASSUME RIGHT OF WAY.

What’s that? You read an opinion article by an architect/urban planner in The New York Times that highlights better ways to design a city and feel that streets should be returned to the people? You’ve been to Amsterdam once, or you have a friend who has been to Amsterdam, and you have decided to appropriate their robust bicycle culture? You saw a story on the internet that said cars are the width of Roman Chariots, because roads were built specifically for vehicles?

That’s cool. All of it…

NEVER ASSUME RIGHT OF WAY.

You’re approaching an intersection with no stop sign? You’re approaching a crosswalk where state law mandates drivers stop for pedestrians? You’re in a dedicated bike lane?

Peachy. Good for you.

NEVER ASSUME RIGHT OF WAY.

The assumption of right of way is one of the most confounding social behaviors I’ve ever witnessed. Granted, I grew up in the ‘burbs, with a healthy fear of everything—including motor vehicles. I recall visiting Boston once with my uncle as a teenager, and when I froze at a crosswalk, he glibly said, “Don’t worry, they can’t afford to hit you.”

Well, my uncle is a moron—because whether or not they can afford to hit me is debatable, whereas I know for damn sure I can’t afford to be hit. Because a car is bigger than me… even now. Sure, I’ve packed on a few pounds since my teen years—but not enough. The base curb weight of a 2018 BMW X5, a popular vehicle in the densely populated area where I now reside, is 4,790 pounds. I don’t stand a chance.

Laws of quantum mechanics state that no two objects can occupy the same space at the same time. Laws of quantum mechanics supersede municipal ordinances or even state laws. Therefore, I’ve made a personal decision to yield to laws of quantum mechanics.

NEVER ASSUME RIGHT OF WAY.

Let’s put it another way. If you’re navigating the streets of urban sprawl New Jersey and you’re essentially relying on the courtesy of strangers, odds are you’re going to come up short. The Hoboken Police Department just performed a little experiment where it sat at one busy intersection in response to complaints from residents. Within hours, they wrote 21 tickets—11 for running stop signs, 4 for people on cell phones, 3 for parking in the intersection, 2 for not wearing seatbelts, and one for failing to yield to a pedestrian.

You think it’s just the cars? The City of Summit, New Jersey has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars modifying streets and raising awareness so that its residents will look up from their cellphones while crossing the street—or at least be less likely to get struck in the process.

You think bikes are the foolproof answer? Last week, a bicyclist was struck by a light rail. Somewhere, some urban planner’s head just exploded. (Editor’s Note: The bicyclist survived and was fully responsive.) Sadly, there seems to be one fundamental aspect that’s immediately forgotten when well-intentioned folk endeavor to “make the streets safer”:

NEVER ASSUME RIGHT OF WAY.

When you assume right of way, you assume the person/bicycle/vehicle you could potentially encounter has the same ethos you have. You’re also assuming they’re obeying traffic laws in general. You’re assuming they’re sober. You’re assuming that they’re not distracted by their telephone, or their screaming child, or an angry wasp that’s strafing their skull as they approach. You’re assuming they’re not being chased by police, or they’re not rushing to the hospital because their passenger’s contractions have just gotten much more intense. You’re assuming they can see around the massive delivery truck on the corner. You’re assuming that they’ve recovered their focus after nearly hitting that squirrel—or the toddler chasing the squirrel. You’re assuming their windshield is clean, or that they didn’t just get sunscreen in their eye, or that they didn’t just hit a pothole that threw them off balance.

You’re assuming that, while once again navigating the densely populated streets in your area, every single scenario in which you’ll be crossing a street will be under ideal and crystal clear circumstances.

You’re going to come up short, at least once. And that may be all it takes.

NEVER ASSUME RIGHT OF WAY.

Anecdotally, I see it all too often—in my car, on my bike, on foot. It triggers me like nothing else, because it’s such an avoidable scenario. It’s arguably the most basic premise of situational awareness. When it comes to the scourge of distracted driving/walking/biking, the only message is DON’T DO IT. There really isn’t anything more to say—get your head out of your ass when you’re out in the world. As for that willful, aggressive behavior that straddles the line between self-righteousness and dominance, it’s worth pointing out that you have so much to lose.

When you assume right of way, you’re literally betting your life on it. You may be absolutely right—you may have right of way; there may not be a stop sign; it may be a dedicated bike lane. But there’s a chance you’ll have to argue that case with your waning breath, pinned beneath a 4,790-pound 2018 BMW X5. Or you’ll have to argue that case in court, facing the family of the person you’ve just killed with that 4,790-pound vehicle. Or you might have a lifetime to think about it, as you’re left bedridden, unable to ever ride your bike again. “But I had right of way…”

Take the slightest bit of time at each intersection, and make sure you’re safe to proceed. This is basic stuff, folks—we’re talking kindergarten-level refreshers here. On that note, I implore you to please raise your children to have an understanding of the laws—whatever they may be—but also instill in them the practical wisdom to realize that not everybody obeys those laws. A healthy fear of the consequences can make a huge difference. It’s not a question of who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s a question of life or death.

One more time, loud and clear, for the full-grown schmuck on a Razor scooter with his earbuds in…

NEVER ASSUME RIGHT OF WAY.

(Stylistic tip o’ the cap to John Cook, whose Gawker piece might be the best goddamn rebuke of stubborn, self-defeating public behavior I’ve ever read.)

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Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 10.04.20 AMChristopher M. Halleron is the Publisher/Editor of hMAG.
As a columnist and journalist, he has covered various aspects of life here in the ‘greater Hoboken area’ and beyond for the past two decades.
His opinions are his own.

Authored by: hMAG