[Dead Man] Walking in L.A.

Rohit Khare (khare@mci.net)
Tue, 14 Oct 1997 09:56:31 -0700

[http://www.salon1999.com/wlust/feature/1997/10/14auto.html ]

["That's why the National Highway Capacity Manual defines a pedestrian as a
"traffic interruption."]

Walking in L.A.


BY D. J. WALDIE | i don't drive, though I grew up and still live in
Southern California. I used to drive, but I don't now because of the
effects of glaucoma and keratoconus on my eyesight, and the loss of
effective vision in my right eye. I don't carry a cane or wear special

When I tell people in Los Angeles that I don't drive, they express
surprise. I joke with them that non-drivers here are a protected species,
like the California condor. When I tell them I don't drive because I don't
see well, they become skeptical. It's at this point that the conversation
gets awkward, for no Southern Californian can imagine that an otherwise
fit-looking, middle-class male would not drive, however marginal his
vision. The drivers are uneasy with my claim of disability. Maybe they
think it's something else that keeps me from driving.

I talk briefly about taking the bus in Los Angeles. I tell them how it's a
stop-and-go, Third World country on wheels, permanently separated from the
fluid world they know. They get very uninterested. I'm describing habits
Los Angeles drivers have no intention of ever acquiring. They imagine a
future in which they will always be drivers. They think they will always be
in control, if only of a car. The drivers tell me how lucky I am to be a
non-driver. They turn the conversation to the frustrations of freeway
traffic and the troubles of maintaining their cars. These are subjects a
driver can always talk about with other drivers, when they have nothing
else in common.

Instead of driving a car, I walk, take a bus and get lifts from colleagues
at work. Like Ray Bradbury -- another Los Angeles non-driver -- I've been
stopped by a sheriff's patrol car on a completely empty stretch of suburban
sidewalk, at midday, dressed in a coat and tie, and ordered to identify
myself and explain my destination. As a pedestrian, I was a suspect.

Pedestrianism is dangerous, and not just in Los Angeles County, where a
third of California's 27,000 injuries from colliding metal and flesh are
concentrated. Nationally, drivers injure more than 110,000 pedestrians each
year. About 6,000 of them die. The number of deaths is greatest in the
suburbs of the Sunbelt -- Miami, Atlanta and Dallas -- and least in
Northeastern cities, including New York and Boston, that have a tradition
of wary pedestrians.

Walking is particularly hazardous for Los Angeles drivers. Anti-war
activist Jerry Rubin was struck and killed in 1994 walking across Wilshire
Boulevard in Westwood. In March, the head of the Los Angeles teachers'
union jaywalked across the seven lanes of Olympic Boulevard in West L.A.
and was killed.

Using a crosswalk is even more deadly. Cities have sandblasted thousands of
formerly marked crosswalks since the mid-1970s when traffic engineers
showed, not surprisingly, that more pedestrians are killed in crosswalks
than out of them. Traffic engineers said the painted lines gave pedestrians
a false sense of security and that made them less attentive to danger. Risk
managers said marked crosswalks make cities vulnerable if they're sued by
injured pedestrians or their survivors.

The federal government doesn't test cars for their impact effects on
pedestrians, and very little is known about making cars safer for the
pedestrians they hit. Car door handles have been recessed to keep them from
hooking into clothing and dragging an unlucky pedestrian under the wheels.
Ralph Nader ridiculed tail fins, and the scythelike fins of the Chevrolet
model line gradually shrank. Apart from these changes, the exterior of a
car today is as unforgiving of flesh as the 1951 Ford Tudor my parents
bought as their first new car.

...seen from curbside, driving looks like a pathology -- a syndrome of
sudden tics, cognitive agnosias and kinetic preservations akin to

A driver preparing to turn right on red swivels his head to the left when
he's a hundred feet from the intersection. He fixes his gaze on the flow of
oncoming traffic. He barely slows (in California at least) at the leading
edge of the crosswalk, his head still rotated 90 degrees to the left. If a
break in traffic is approaching, he begins to turn, taking his car through
50 degrees of arc, before his head jerks through a full 180 degrees and he,
for the first time, sees me on his right as the light turns green and the
"walk" symbol of a striding male figure shines ghostly white.

I've been watching him, because traffic safety trainers suggest that
pedestrians stare at drivers who've turned away during a right turn
maneuver. The theory is that human beings are quick to sense when someone
is staring at them -- a common primate threat behavior -- and a driver
who's stared at will react unconsciously as if the pedestrian is real. My
belief that staring actually works is my only protection.

I've noticed that the habits of driving are structured to preserve
momentum. Some patients with Parkinson's cannot walk voluntarily. If a
light touch pushes them from behind, however, they'll walk forward, but
they won't stop unless they collide with something. They'll stop with
another light touch, this time on the chest.

If the lights have been timed properly, if the number of cars doesn't
exceed the carrying capacity of the highway and if the drivers are
skillful, the flow of traffic through the intersection is almost lyrical.
The preoccupied drivers automatically surrender to the momentum of driving.
Trust passes from driver to driver in a wheel of cars. A pedestrian in the
intersection is like a fan strolling across the court during an NBA game.
That's why the National Highway Capacity Manual defines a pedestrian as a
"traffic interruption."

The driver making the turn is alone. His windows are rolled up; the air
conditioning and radio are on. He's cocooned inside, but he's also extended
a phantom skin to the surface of his car. A neurologist would say that the
driver has enlarged his proprioception -- the background sense we have of
how we're oriented in space and where self leaves off and not-self begins.

If a driver should ding his car in the parking lot or thump the roof going
under a low branch, his expanded proprioception will make him grimace as if
his real skin, not the amplified surface of his car, were at risk.

Though I've not yet stepped off the curb, some drivers slam on their brakes
when our eyes meet. The rear of the car humps slightly while the slack goes
out of the driver's shoulder belt. Other drivers swerve imperceptibly as
they complete their turn through the intersection, their eyes averted from
mine. I've lost my place in the musical chairs of momentum, and all the
cars stacked in a right-turn-only lane will use the opportunity I've
forfeited. Some drivers come two-thirds through the turn before our gazes
lock. Then they stop, as if I'd be fool enough now to step out in front of
their car.


I don't drive, but I imagine that I can. It's not a skill you forget, I
tell myself; it's like riding a bicycle. Standing at the curb waiting for a
bus, I sometimes think of situations in which I might need to take command
of a car.

A woman pulls to the curb. "Please, you've got to help me! The baby! I
think it's coming now! You've got to help me!"

I slide into the driver's seat, putting the car into gear. "I'll drive you
to a hospital; don't be afraid. Just hang on." Buried habits surface. A
quick glance over my left shoulder, and I pull smoothly into a break in


"No car is just a car," David Cronenberg (the writer/director of "Crash")
has said. He's right. A car is always a special kind of place, just as
driving is a relationship to a place in which I'm a complete exception, an
obligatory passenger.

I'm a good passenger. I don't reflexively apply a phantom brake if the
driver doesn't respond fast enough to slowing traffic. I don't presume to
know the directions to where we're going. I don't question the driver's
choice of lane, speed or offramp. I don't ask to have the radio or air
conditioning on or off.

Single women keep the best cars. They vacuum the interior and dispose of
takeout drink cups. News photographers and reporters (male and female) keep
the worst cars. A news photographer will have a month's back issues of the
paper she works for in the seat beside her, under a box with a half-eaten
pizza. She'll have assignments stuck to the inside edge of the windshield
with Post-it notes. Her dashboard will be crumbling into tufts of foam
rubber padding.

The interior of a guy's car will remind you of what he was like in high
school -- obsessively careful about a few things and oblivious to the rest.

In Los Angeles, more than three-quarters of freeway commuters drive alone.
In one study of the Hollywood Freeway, 75 percent of the drivers couldn't
think of any inducement to take public transit or carpool. They are the
"hard-core solitary drivers," according to researchers. Driving alone is
its own anesthetic. Studies show that drivers regard any time spent inside
a car as less onerous than walking by a factor of three or four. Drivers
say that waiting for a bus is worse than waiting in gridlock by a factor of

Even going nowhere, a car is the room you may not have had as a child, one
where your parents can never intrude. It's one of the few places in which
you're alone by choice.


I'll never know the concert of speed and solitude in which drivers commune.
I don't have another skin of steel and high-impact plastic made for the
pleasure of driving.

I walk to work and collect the "car allowance" that other management
employees get. I wait for the block-long gap in traffic that poorly timed
signals create and jaywalk across the empty boulevard. I stare at drivers
waiting for me to cross an intersection. I rarely make out the driver's
expression through the tinted windshield, but sometimes I see a face that
shows irritation and occasional anger. Driving is performed in public, but
it's a private act, removed from the spectacle of the street. My gaze has
gotten under the driver's second skin. I've brought the sidewalk inside his
car, and he, in momentary discomfort, recognizes what I am.

SALON | Oct. 14, 1997

D. J. Waldie last wrote for Salon about the Cold War. "Holy Land," his
memoir of suburbia, was published by W. W. Norton in 1996. He reminds you
to look both ways before crossing the street and to always wait for the

Rohit Khare /// Graduate Student /// UC Irvine Computer Science
rohit@uci.edu /// Work: (714) 824-3100 /// Home: (714) 823-9705

[Urgent? (617) 960-5131 still works to page me]