On Conforming to the Traffic

I HAVE sometimes wondered why a man who has just saved his life by dodging a Ford almost invariably behaves as if it were a matter of no importance. I do this myself, so I know by experience that such a man is probably not so indifferent as he tries to look. He can control his expression because his face goes about naked and is accustomed to observation; but his knees shake (in his trousers) and his hair rises (under his hat). Yet it was only the other day that I came upon a plausible explanation. Pedestrians, said a speaker at a Safety First convention in London, are largely responsible for motor accidents because they fail to ‘conform to the evolution of vehicular traffic.’ So far I have evidently conformed; the important question is, How long can I keep it up? For my conformity is imperfect, and my assumption of indifference — the manner, that is, of a man who knows that he cannot be run over by a Ford — is an instinctive effort to persuade myself that I already conform very much better than I do. My evolution would be arrested if I dropped to my knees in grateful prayer on the sidewalk; and so would the evolution of others if they crowded round to help me up and congratulate me on having again dodged a Ford. It will be understood, of course, that when I say ‘Ford’ I mean everything from this fine little car to the largest imaginable truck.

This is an illuminating discovery, explaining the present by the past and linking together the whole long series of survivals by which the pedestrian, alive and kicking, has come down into the twentieth century. Millions of years ago I see in imagination my prehistoric ancestor, a coarse, hairy fellow, yet with a certain family resemblance, dodging a dinosaur. If he could have looked millions of years forward, my prehistoric ancestor would have seen me, a refined, hairless fellow, yet with a certain family resemblance, dodging a Ford. I am by no means certain that he would have thought me an improvement. It is not my intention, however, to attempt a parallel between our conditions, which have little in common except the necessity of evading a destructive force and are widely differentiated by the fact that the survival of those hearty, uncultured men millions of years ago did not require also the survival of dinosaurs. As things are with us, every owner and operator of a Ford is often a pedestrian, little as he likes it, and every pedestrian more or less frequently goes about in a Ford.

Observe, for example, my own present condition. I am, as a rule, wholly subservient to the traffic policeman. I Go when he says Go — and I STOP when he says STOP. But, for all my trust in him, I Go more confidently if I can manage unostentatiously to sandwich myself between two good, stout fellow pedestrians. I agree with Cæsar. ‘Let me have men about me that are fat,’ I say, ‘sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o’ nights’ — or women either, or both together. But the fatter the better. I am almost timid. Yet the other day, far away from a corner and out of sight or reach of any traffic policeman, I hopped off, as the aviators say, and went across a street in perfect conformity with the vehicular traffic. I was thinking deeply of something else, and, as I now see, my subconscious mind hastily got into uniform and became what is colloquially called a traffic cop. Go! STOP! GO! JUMP! JUMP BACKWARD! STOP! GO! RUN! STOP AND GO! DODGE LEFT! STOP! Go! RUN AROUND IN A CIRCLE! GO! DODGE RIGHT! BACKWARD AND FORWARD! CHANGE STEP! STOP! GO! JUMP! — and there I was, safe and sound on the other side of the street. But I relapsed immediately into the self-consciousness of imperfect conformity. My knees shook (in my trousers) and my hair rose (under my hat), though, of course, I assumed the conventional indifference, and went on my way as if nothing unusual had happened, humming or whistling. It is only after I have just dodged a Ford that I hum or whistle in the street.

On the sidewalk the conformity of each unit to the evolution of every other unit is well-nigh perfect. Without giving the matter any conscious thought at all, each drives himself or herself with unerring dexterity, now fast, now slow, deviating by a hair’s breadth to pass a thin pedestrian or several inches to pass a fat one, constantly changing his or her course and rate of speed, darting one instant, dawdling, very likely in pleasant conversation, the next; and only on very rare occasions making such an error of judgment as causes one pedestrian to embrace another. Even then no harm is done that cannot be quickly remedied by a merry laugh and an apology — especially to the opposite sex. This, however, has been a long, slow process of evolution, as had been the parallel evolution of vehicular traffic until the invention of a mechanical horse of great speed to which pedestrians have not yet habituated themselves. It must be also taken into consideration that there are far more mechanical horses in proportion to population; or, to put it colloquially, more Fords than Dobbins.

Hardly more than a century ago Hazlitt wrote in an essay, ‘Give me a clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me — and then to thinking! It will be hard if I cannot start some game on these lone heaths. I laugh, I run, I leap, I sing for joy. From the point of yonder cloud, I plunge into my past being, as the sunburnt Indian plunges headlong into the wave that wafts him to his native shore.’ (I am a little puzzled about that Indian, but perhaps he had been out fishing; and anyway, what he plunged off, and why he did it, must have been commonplace compared with Mr. Hazlitt’s own dive.) It would appear on this evidence that lone heaths were then available for pedestrians within easy walking distance of large cities, so lone indeed that a pedestrian could laugh, run, leap, and sing without attracting undesirable attention. Occasionally, perhaps, the occupants of a post chaise or a tilbury—vehicles with which Mr. Hazlitt was familiar — might wonder at his behavior. But nothing faster, or more often, than a bull was likely to approach the traveler from behind; and the winding road in front needed no painted death’s-head grinning around each gracious curve to lessen the likelihood of a head-on collision between privately owned and operated locomotives. Often, one may believe, there would be nobody in sight on the lone heath but Mr. Hazlitt himself. We have changed all that; but it was a long time yet before Mr. Ford began making those fine little cars, one of which, if he were alive to-day, Mr. Hazlitt would very likely own and operate. There will be those to say that if he still insisted upon walking he might join the Boy Scouts. But this expedient would give no satisfaction to Mr. Hazlitt. ‘One of the pleasantest things in the world,’ he wrote, ‘is going a journey; but I like to go by myself.’

It is not surprising, therefore, that the pedestrian is still a nonconformist to the evolution of vehicular traffic; but it may fairly be argued that his evolution lags in part because of the very efforts being made to protect him from the consequences of his nonconformity. Nothing is more erroneous than the idea, frequently advanced by pedestrians, that motorists are indifferent to the safety of pedestrians — except, perhaps, the equally silly notion, frequently advanced by motorists, that pedestrians are indifferent to the safety of motorists. The frank statement at the Safety First convention that pedestrians are really responsible for being run over went hand in hand with further efforts to keep them from being run over. But the protection of pedestrians is not the way that nature would conduct matters. Crossing the street in a reasonably confident state of mind, yet a shade apprehensive lest the vehicular traffic start with a rush before the last pedestrian is quite over, — and this, I imagine, is how the last forty or fifty of the Israelites felt when they crossed the Red Sea, — does not advance the evolution of the pedestrian as a free walker in an overpopulated world. It tends, if anything, to make a sheep of him. But even if pedestrians conformed to traffic there would be pride and place for the traffic policeman. It would be all right, as I have just shown, for one pedestrian to cross by himself, but several hundred pedestrians at once would take up too much space. So there would still be need of the graceful gestures of a handsome man in uniform, or the pretty flashing of colored lights in a tower, to tell these pedestrians when to Go and when to STOP. But the pedestrians would respond better. They would Go, and they would STOP, and none would STOP when they were told to Go or Go when they were told to STOP. The time may come when such direction is rendered unnecessary by tunnels, and the pedestrian will run lightly downstairs on one side of the street and lightly upstairs and out on the other; or by bridges, in which case the pedestrian will do just the opposite. That he will ever become a mechanical bird and fly over is, I think, as out of the question as that he will ever become a motor vehicle himself by wearing wheels and a motor; and so, whatever happens, the nonconformist will be in the same danger, out of his tunnel or off his bridge, that he is now in when out of sight of a traffic policeman.

Fortunately there remain many places that may still relatively be called lone heaths, where natural beauty is now diversified by the introduction of works of art illustrating the life and manners of the times, and where the vehicular traffic is spread so thin that quite often Mr. Hazlitt might for a minute or two have the road all to himself. It is on these lone heaths that the pedestrian may come to know the motor car, as his prehistoric ancestor came to know the dinosaur, through all his senses. Many things on which I pride myself my prehistoric ancestor did not know, but he knew dinosaurs. He knew what they looked like, sounded like, smelled like, tasted like, — fortunately our present situation is not complicated by the palatability of a Ford, — and, either by hearsay or by experience, felt like. He was quick — and this I cannot do even if I have plenty of time — at shinning a tree. On these lone heaths, where there are no traffic policemen, the pedestrian may practise and acquire conformity to the evolution of vehicular traffic. And when the time comes that he can honestly and comfortably say with Hazlitt, ‘a winding road before me — and then to thinking!’ he will be in good working conformity.