A couple of years ago, a woman in a wheelchair crossed a driveway in front of my car. She was on the sidewalk moving in the opposite direction from street traffic, where my attention was fixed. If it hadn't been for a passenger who yelled Watch out! my SUV would have hit her. The image of her head barely cresting the hood, and the neon-tipped antennae on her chair, waving an almost comically placid warning, is seared into memory.
Let's dispense for the time being with the question of fault: My fault.
Let's also dispense with the SUV. (Done, thanks to cash for clunkers.)
Consider instead the complexities of moving against the flow of traffic.
Several of us bicyclists routinely ride against traffic on a particular section of sidewalk. Pedestrians on this section are rare and don't seem to mind; street traffic is heavy and there is no bike path; crossing to the other side can add up to a quarter mile, and the walkway is wide enough for two SUVs.
Wise bicyclists pause at every intersection and visually make contact with drivers waiting at the lights. It is more fun, however, to tear along, timing the lights, visual contact be damned. And, if there are no cars waiting, the temptation is strong to sneak through against lights rather than listen to noisy signs policing the crosswalk, "WAIT, WAIT, WAIT, WAIT, WAIT ... Walk Sign is ON Across ____ Road."
In other words, the trust shown by the woman in the wheelchair as she ventured in front of a stranger's SUV, is familiar territory. From the SUV driver's point of view, it bordered on bravado, maybe even defiance. Who knows? Maybe from the woman's point of view, too. And unlike the duck who almost fell victim to my bicycle (assuming that the woman was not developmentally disabled), we are not innocents. We know the risks.
What if the alert passenger hadn't been there? A driver asleep at the switch + a woman moving against the flow of traffic = recipe for tragedy. The question of fault would be revealed for what it is: a legal technicality, overwhelmed by the the awful and wondrous truth of human frailty, mine and hers.
In a time when Ben Bernanke is named Man of the Year for saving us from an economic disaster he helped create; when the President, much as I like him, is named Nobel Peace Prize winner, as he increases troops in Afghanistan; when seed saver-suing Monsanto is named Company of the Year, it is important to follow the laws, but sometimes listening to the WAIT, WAIT, WAIT, WAIT... just isn't practical. We also need people willing to go against the flow, and more than ever, we need companions on the lookout.